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12 Best Things We Saw at MerleFest 2016

From Jason Isbell’s triumphant headlining set to Old Crow Medicine Show’s super-charged strings

Old Crow Medicine Show

Old Crow Medicine Show were one of the highlights of this year's MerleFest.

Willa Stein

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.

Jerry Douglas

Jamie Wykle

Best MerleFest Veteran: Jerry Douglas

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.

Steep Canyon Rangers

Jamie Wykle

Best Innovators: Steep Canyon Rangers

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.  

April Verch

Misty McGuire Case

Best Spirit of Doc Watson: April Verch

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.  

Alison Brown

William Sparklin

Best Envelope Pusher: Alison Brown

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.