MerleFest, presented by Window World, has wrapped up its 30th year, closing out with a raise-the-roof acoustic performance from Zac Brown Band. Early estimates show that from its start on Thursday, April 27, to its close on Sunday, April 30, aggregate participation over the festival’s four days exceeded 80,000 participants. MerleFest, held on the campus of Wilkes Community College, is the primary fundraiser for the WCC Foundation, funding scholarships, capital projects and other educational needs.
From the Watson Stage, Zac Brown talked about growing up coming to MerleFest and watching his musical idols on stage, artists he saw as heroes. He spoke of what a privilege it is to be in the “batcave” with them now, meaning the Watson Stage. He also spoke nostalgically of how he used to lie in the grass field at MerleFest listening to all the music as a young man. He said that he does not get to do that anymore, but he is happy that everyone else at MerleFest can still enjoy doing that at the festival.
Over 100 incredible performers contributed to the success of this year’s festival, nearly all of whom had performed in previous years and were invited back to be part of the 30th celebration. These artists included Zac Brown Band, Transatlantic Sessions hosted by Jerry Douglas and Aly Bain featuring James Taylor, The Avett Brothers, Béla Fleck, Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives, The Del McCoury Band, Leftover Salmon, Sam Bush, Earls of Leicester featuring Jerry Douglas, Peter Rowan, Steep Canyon Rangers, Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy, Jorma Kaukonen, Sarah Jarosz, Jim Lauderdale, and many more.
Every year, music fans experience what has become known as “MerleFest Moments” – special groupings of performances, jam sessions and events that get the whole festival talking and add to the festival’s rich history.
Thursday night’s MerleFest Moment came from bluegrass pioneer Del McCoury. Even though he was reportedly suffering from laryngitis and was planning not to sing, he was carried away by the emotion of the moment onstage and sang his entire set in his uniquely powerful voice. The Avett Brothers were wildly anticipated Thursday night and took the stage with an explosive performance that echoed across the grounds. Their cover of Doc Watson’s “Country Blues” went from a close-quarters fiddle and banjo duet into a wonderful extended jam.
Friday afternoon, MerleFest was buzzing with excitement for folk-rock legend James Taylor, who was scheduled to perform with The Transatlantic Sessions Tour hosted by Jerry Douglas and Aly Bain. Taylor opened his set with his hit song “Carolina on my Mind,” joking, “I might as well get this out of the way!”
On Saturday, the Avett Brothers returned for an especially powerful set on the Hillside Stage entirely made up of songs from Doc Watson, a key influence to their music. “We feel Doc’s presence here, even three years after his death, and he’s everywhere in our music,” said Scott Avett. The Avett Brothers invited Doc Watson’s brother, David Watson, to the stage for a special introduction. “I was 15 the first time I came to MerleFest. It doesn’t feel different now. The authenticity seems to stay here,” said Seth Avett. Other surprises of the day included Sarah Jarosz’s hard-edged cover of Prince’s “When Doves Cry” complete with stunning bass solo from bassist Jeff Picker. Late in the evening, Ireland’s I Draw Slow showed their love for the region with a rousing Appalachian stringband tune on the Dance Stage that had people spinning and twirling. Closing out the Watson Stage on Saturday night, Donna the Buffalo was joined by Béla Fleck, Sam Bush, and young bluegrass mandolin powerhouse Chris Henry for their all-star Saturday night jam.
Sunday at MerleFest opened to more beautiful sunny weather. Sunday’s programming sponsor was Lowes Foods. On the Watson Stage, Kruger Brothers mastered the difficult combination of bluegrass and classical music, premiering their “Roan Mountain Suite” with The Kontras Quartet, and in a virtuosic turn, brought the group together on Sting’s “Fields of Gold.” Natalie MacMaster & Donnell Leahy, two of Canada’s best fiddlers, brought out four of their young children for a rousing round of fiddle and step-dancing that had the MerleFest crowd on their feet for their first of three standing ovations for the family. Toward the end of his set, country and roots music star Marty Stuart paused to remember Doc Watson, who he “missed with all his heart,” dedicating a beautiful hymn to Doc. Closing out the evening and the festival, Zac Brown Band presented a special all-acoustic set, just guitars, bass and fiddle, including songs off his upcoming album, “Welcome Home.”