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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.

Sam Bush

Jim Gavenus

Best Rock & Roller: Sam Bush

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

Jamie Wykle

Best Poet Laureate: John Prine

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.

Mike Farris

Will Sparklin

Best Soul Man: Mike Farris

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.

Jim Lauderdale

Chris Noble

Best MVP: Jim Lauderdale

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.

Old Crow Medicine Show

Dr. Gordon Burns

Best Tent Revival: Old Crow Medicine Show

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."  

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.