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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.  

Marty Stuart

Willa Stein

Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives

Like his compadres Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas, Marty Stuart is a veteran of the first MerleFest, where they all played for free in order to help build a 30-year tradition. That was back in Stuart’s hip-shaking “Hillbilly Rock” era. On closing day, he showcased the sweeping vision of his later recordings, including “Old Mexico” and “Time Don’t Wait” from the brand new concept album Way Out West. Never one to forget the greats of American music, he and his show-stopping band featured Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” and Woody Guthrie’s “The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd,” sung by drummer and standout harmony singer Harry Stinson. Toward the end of the set, Stuart rued missing Doc Watson’s funeral five years ago, but compensated with a stirring performance of the bluegrass gospel “Angels Rock Me to Sleep.”   

Tift Merritt

Flattop MerleFest

Tift Merritt

On the eve of Merritt’s album debut in 2002, she won the hallmark competition at MerleFest: The Chris Austin Songwriting Contest, named in honor of the songwriter and fiddler who died in the 1991 plane crash that claimed eight people from Reba McEntire’s band. The contest was very much on Merritt’s mind as she reeled off probing cuts from her new album Stitch of the World. Then she got political, introducing her new song “Icarus” as a commentary on dreaming versus hubris. The unfortunate flyer from ancient Greek mythology at least was dreaming, she argued – it’s certain political figures in modern times who define hubris. Her days as alt-country’s beloved ingénue well behind her, Merritt’s ringing guitar and dusky vocals point toward her own suns.  

Jim Lauderdale

Ed Gavenus

Jim Lauderdale

The unofficial host of MerleFest, Jim Lauderdale is always between albums. The North Carolina native’s show at the Hillside Stage in blistering heat, harked back to last year’s This Changes Everything, his paean to the golden Western swing sound, but then quickly shifted into his Otis Redding guise for a sweet set of rhythm and blues. He sampled his midnight-drenched Soul Searching album of 2015 and then previewed his upcoming London Southern release, recorded in Great Britain, which again finds him chasing the ghost of Redding. Nobody except the Lauderdale band could pour steel-guitar licks into the blues and come out shining. But in a minute, he disappeared, making way for the Waybacks and their popular album hour.

The Waybacks

Bob Alexander

The Waybacks

The magic of the Waybacks’ annual set is the mystery. One of the most anticipated performances of the festival, the California-based band presents a classic album every year. Only nobody knows in advance which one. Speculation overtakes social media and lawn chair conversations around the festival. What will the album be? Turns out MerleFest isn’t the only birthday boy. The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band turns 50 this year and, with the help of Sam Bush, Lauderdale and banjoist Jens Kruger, the Waybacks delivered an inventive tribute studded with sounds that spanned the psychedelic era. 

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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