Politics looked to fill every quiet moment at this weekend's Merlefest in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. With heavy names such as Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam pulling out of concerts in nearby cities over the state's HB2 legislation, fans whispered about who might skip the nation's largest roots and Americana festival. But everybody from John Prine to Jason Isbell checked in on time. As for the quiet moments, they don't do lulls at Merlefest. Over four days, nonstop music poured from eight stages, including 12 performances that we loved more than politics.
While day visitors and crunchy fans with four-day passes looked up at a small patch of blue sky on Sunday afternoon — the last day of MerleFest — headliner Jason Isbell stepped on stage as cool as James Dean. A liberal sampling from his latest album Something More Than Free found the former Drive-By Trucker and his smart 400 Unit pondering the burdened years between young adulthood and middle-age, and reflections on blood-soaked family feuds in his "Decoration Day" drew festival-goers to their feet. While country music careens around a blind curve in a Chevy Silverado, Isbell examines its skid marks on the road. His lonely vocals convinced the audience that his existential detective work just might be worthwhile.
The rain had all but disappeared for singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile's reckoning with North Carolina. The grounds awakened as the gay Americana star dished out the sunny "Caroline" from 2012 and boldly covered Led Zeppelin's "Going to California." Then she addressed the one storm cloud still hanging over the festival. "North Carolina doesn't always look like its politics," she told her fans, some of whom expected her to boycott the state over HB2. Then she sliced into Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run," the song he refused to sing for his North Carolina faithful.
Gillian Welch once said that tying her personal relationship with Dave Rawlings to their act would be "hokey and lame." At MerleFest, though, they were one in the same. No George and Tammy show, their heart harmonies in the Dave Rawlings Machine magnetized the audience. As if perched on a radio barn dance stage, they swung from their flirtatious "Sweet Tooth" to the grim "Bodysnatchers" from the "Knoxville Girl" school of songwriting. Throat problems had scotched their scheduled press conference earlier in the day, but their voices purred by showtime.
The sky had darkened when the lanky Sam Bush jogged onto the main stage on Saturday evening. Hustling over from the Waybacks tribute to the Eagles, where Bush's mandolin had channeled Joe Walsh, the lanky charmer still buzzed rock & roll, brandishing "Great Balls of Fire" from his New Grass Revival days and a rock-symphony cover of "When You Gonna Wake Up" from Bob Dylan's gospel era. As rain pelted his fans, he ended with a jam session featuring Tim O'Brien and the Kruger Brothers.
John Prine closed opening night with Merle Haggard on his mind, sailing through a joyous boom-chicka-boom take on the late country music legend's "Ramblin' Fever" from 1977. Dressed like an Irish coach driver in black suit and tie, he scattered the nighttime moths with the anthemic "Glory of True Love" and silenced even the ice-cream vendors as he warbled the plaintive "Hello in There." Ten acres of festival grounds became a listening room dedicated to our nation's true poet laureate.
Many artists, without comment, aimed selections from their catalog at the HB2 legislation, until the Grammy-winning Mike Farris and his Roseland Rhythm Revue appeared in a frenzy on the second night. Amid their mix of Billy Preston's gospel funk and Stevie Ray Vaughan-inspired blues, Farris preached, "The power of love isn't just for church people. It's for everyone." Earlier, his sober interpretation of Prince's "Purple Rain" — delivered on a perfect back-porch night — was one of the festival's passionate elegies to the gender-bending, pop-rock king.
With so many styles and traditions on the schedule, there's only one way to classify the MerleFest artists: those who hit the road immediately after their show and those who don't. From Thursday to Sunday, North Carolina native and Americana darling Jim Lauderdale judged contests, emceed showcases, sat in with friends and even played Western swing. And he served up a Day 3 show with a taut seven-piece band bigger than Bobby "Blue" Bland's used to be. The late, legendary R&B star must have been on Lauderdale's mind when he planned his set. Like Bland, Lauderdale screwed up his face and belted the blues from his recent album Soul Searching. Ever the interlocuter, he also brought up pop star John Oates to join him. As if he needed more blue-eyed soul.
The flames roared up when the crowd's beloved Old Crow Medicine Show took the stage. Busking on the streets in Boone, North Carolina, in 1999, they encountered festival father Doc Watson, who invited them to his big party. Like a modern-day incarnation of the Hoosier Hot Shots, the Crows buckdanced and mugged and whimsically swapped instruments throughout their feverish set. They, too, honored Haggard and then kindly remembered Willie Nelson's recent birthday. Fans born and bred in the Tarheel State cheered frontman Ketch Secor's mentions of nearby places, and joined their voices in unison for the band's enduring "Wagon Wheel."
Taking a page from Alison Brown, Jerry Douglas journeyed through progressive jazz in his 29th appearance at the festival. "We're going to take you into bluegrass with a song by Weather Report," he dryly announced. Like a gypsy peering into a crystal ball and conjuring unsettling vibrations, Douglas's dobro re-imagined a New Orleans funeral march and a Leadbelly prison song. The crowd may have wished for more fire from this reluctant front man, but he and his eclectic band pressed forward, always innovating and seeking knotholes in the fences that divide genres.
Taking a break from a spring tour with Steve Martin and Martin Short, the Steep Canyon Rangers — formed in 2000 at nearby University of North Carolina — once again stood up for young bluegrass bands everywhere who mash their beloved music with rock and folk. Only at MerleFest, the band took it one step further, closing its first-night set with a barrage of African rhythms that may have Paul Simon seeking its services. If there's any doubt that the Steep Canyon players are modern bluegrass music's hard-charging innovators, then Nicky Sanders' gale-force fiddle breakdowns and Mike Guggino's blistering mandolin solos settled the claim.
While the masses flocked to the main-stage acts, the heart and soul of MerleFest lived in the small venues, where acoustic sets echoed Doc Watson and his son Merle, whom the festival honors. Nobody embodied that sound like fiddler April Verch. Steeped in the old-time traditions of her native Canada, she and guitarist Alex Rubin and bassist and banjo player Cody Walters embroidered their show with old field recordings, native ballads and Swedish folk songs. When Verch launched into a step dance once performed by lumberjacks, the crowd swooned. On top of that, her playful take on "If You Hadn't Gone Away," a 1920s torch song, topped the jazz card at MerleFest.
From the Watson Stage crowned by the green of 200 trees, banjo great Alison Brown steered clear of modern politics, reaching back instead to Civil War conflict in "A Long Way Gone," about the Battle of Nashville. The Connecticut native has pushed the boundaries of folk and bluegrass, in her case by adding electric keyboards and embracing jazz-brunch styles. Knowing that her MerleFest audience has always listened to pop radio — whether it admits it or not — she offered light-rock favorites by Chuck Mangione and Cyndi Lauper.