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.
The sprawling grounds of MerleFest hushed as the Zac Brown Band took over the main stage to close the four-day celebration. Everybody had flocked to the main Watson Stage to catch Brown lead his guys, absent percussion, through bonfire anthems “Homegrown,” “Knee Deep,” “Chicken Fried” and plenty more. Reminding the crowd of the band’s upcoming album Welcome Home, Brown also made room for plenty of recollections from MerleFests gone by, praising the kids he saw performing on the youth stage when he himself was 12 years old. Those young fiddlers and banjoists inspired him, he said. And now to play the stage where his heroes played? “It feels good to be up here in the Bat Cave,” said Brown.
On the cusp of a life in a straight-ahead rock & roll band many years ago, multi-instrumentalist Seth Avett recalibrated his sensors when he met Doc Watson. Of course, Seth and the rest of the Avett Brothers, natives of nearby Concord, have never stopped indulging their love of rock as they showed on opening night of Merlefest, channeling Queen, George Harrison and the unhinged glory of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. But as always there was room for the earthy inspirations that came from Watson and others like him. While the large crowd in the back of the field swarmed to the closest Jumbotron to watch their heroes bathed in Popsicle lighting, the band delivered their Americana favorites “Murder in the City” and “I and Love and You,” and recent album cuts “Ain’t No Man” and “Smithsonian,” most every lyric discreetly moored to the lessons of their North Carolina childhood.
Fans mobbed the festival to see the weekend’s prize 30th birthday gift: singer-songwriter James Taylor, whose father grew up in Morganton, North Carolina. Traveling with MerleFest veteran Jerry Douglas and Scottish fiddler Aly Bain as part of this summer’s Trans-Atlantic Sessions Tour, Taylor hoisted the hometown banner with his chestnut “Carolina on My Mind” and savored telling again of his 1968 discovery by the Beatles. Douglas, who leads the troupe, relished singing harmonies behind Taylor, his face glowing with appreciation. The nation’s beloved troubadour has lost some vocal dexterity over the years, but he can still coax a vision of hometown hope and melancholy like no other.
Plagued by allergies when he opened the main stage entertainment on Thursday, Del McCoury could have backed out of his band’s steel-cut harmony choruses. But the 78-year-old bluegrass master sang through it in the spirit of the proud and determined Doc Watson, lending his lean and piercing tenor to favorites such as “Nashville Cats,” “All Aboard” and his signature “1952 Black Vincent Lightning.” When McCoury joined bluegrass father Bill Monroe’s band in 1963, he met Watson at the Ash Grove nightclub in Hollywood. The two giants – now long dead – are never far away from a Del McCoury show.
Watson and Monroe remained incarnate as the popular Mandolin Orange hit the main stage under a cruel evening sky. From down the highway in Chapel Hill, the duo of Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz and their band pounded out the bluegrass standard “My Long Journey Home,” which the two legends routinely polished up in their day. Marlin seemed sheepish invoking his looming forebears, but he needn’t have flinched. The band’s striking originals – “Wildfire” and “That Wrecking Ball” – explored the mystery of the human experience with authority that belied their musical youth. The rain came, and Mandolin Orange sang about “floorboards creaking” and “memories slipping away.”
Reverence for the venerated Bill Monroe disappeared from the MerleFest script at the appearance of Monroe’s former lead singer Peter Rowan, a Blue Grass Boy in the mid-1960s, and Robert Bowling, his last fiddle player. On the intimate Americana Stage, Rowan was promoting his new Omnivore album My Aloha and good-naturedly pointed out that his former boss’s classic “Kentucky Waltz” rings of an old Hawaiian ballad. Playful gossip about the bluegrass founder’s mistresses and grudges peppered Rowan and his partners’ fine takes on Monroe’s “Uncle Pen” and the MerleFest standard “My Long Journey Home.” With the set about to dissolve into memories of Big Mon, Rowan – who’s performed at each of the 30 MerleFests – wisely turned to 2004’s “Angel Island,” which he co-wrote with the great bluegrass guitarist Tony Rice. Its message about the dreams of a long-ago Chinese immigrant reminded the audience that newcomers have always imagined paradise in America.
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.”
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.
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 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.
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.