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MerleFest 2017: 11 Best Things We Saw at the Roots Music Festival

From Zac Brown Band’s stripped-down set to the Avett Brothers doing double duty, the highlights of the annual North Carolina hoedown

Avett Brothers

The Avett Brothers perform at the 30th annual MerleFest in North Carolina.

Sara Brennan

This weekend’s celebration of the 30th MerleFest stirred up a North Carolina homecoming like no other. Native Tarheels and adopted sons and daughters such as the Avett Brothers, Jim Lauderdale, Tift Merritt, Mandolin Orange, Chatham County Line and the Steep Canyon Rangers poured onto the campus of Wilkes Community College to pay homage to America’s biggest roots music festival, created by the legendary folk singer and guitarist Doc Watson in memory of his son Merle, an admired strummer in his own right, who died in a tractor accident at the age of 36. From the 1985 tragedy arose a tradition that this year drew 80,000 fans, who seem ready to ride the festival into the next three decades.  

Jim Avett

Jim Gavenus

Jim Avett

As it should have, the festival ended as it began. The Avett Brothers returned unannounced from their opening night spectacular to accompany their father Jim’s humble presentation of old-time hymns in a closing day gospel session. Kicking off the Creekside Stage set on his own, Dad churned out “The Old Rugged Cross” and “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” But fans soon squirmed when they caught sight of Avett brothers Scott and Seth bobbing in the grass behind the stage. Whispers flew around the grassy amphitheater and necks craned, and then the boys with bassist Bob Crawford performed more gospel in a family tradition that brought to mind North Carolina’s Johnson Family Singers of yore. With “In the Garden,” the Avetts were gone and MerleFest approached its close. 

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