By Samir Shukla
The “picking" tents, filled with guitar, banjo, mandolin, and fiddle players of all ages, were hopping as I walked through the entrance and into the musical swirl of the 30th edition of MerleFest on April 28. The Friday afternoon sky was scattered with clouds and bits of sunshine, a perfect day to take in music in the outdoors.
There are over dozen places setup for performances during MerleFest and the Hillside stage has become my favorite spot to see bands there. The Hillside stage is a natural amphitheater where folks can sit up on the hill facing the stage. It's a bit of a workout on your back as you sit on the hill, but the view of the stage and the sound are top-notch.
I caught the ever-danceable Scythian perform a feisty set there. The band has become a crowd favorite and this was their 10th year performing at the fest. The Steep Canyon Rangers played later in the afternoon with special guest mandolinist and bluegrass veteran Sam Bush. The legendary Del McCoury was slated to be a guest but had to opt out due to laryngitis. The Rangers started off mellow, but played a toe-tapping set with Bush adding his mandolin firepower into the mix.
I strolled up to the indoor Walker Center and caught the Docabilly Blues Blowout with Mitch Greenhill and compatriots. It was an eclectic jam of blues, rockabilly, and country blues with several guests including Tara and Jeb from Donna the Buffalo, Jim Avett and others delving into the bluesier side of Doc Watson's music.
Sierra Hull's soft mandolin and voice were a bit mismatched for the large Watson stage, sometimes getting lost in the crowd's chatter. She is a wonderful performer but maybe better heard at a smaller, more intimate venue or stage.
The Watson stage is of course perfect for a large band, like the Transatlantic Sessions Tour hosted by Jerry Douglas and Aly Bain and on this night featured the main attraction, music legend James Taylor. The headliners brought a multi-artist jam to the big stage and Taylor strolled onto the stage and opened his set with the classic “Carolina in my Mind." He quipped, “I might as well get this out of the way," knowing fully well the crowd would expect that song, especially from a Chapel Hill native performing at a beloved NC music gathering.
I caught parts of many other performances at other venues including the Creekside stage and the Plaza stage.
Over 100 bands and musicians performed this year, including Zac Brown Band, The Avett Brothers, Béla Fleck, Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives, Leftover Salmon, Sam Bush Band, The Earls of Leicester featuring Jerry Douglas, Peter Rowan, Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy, Jorma Kaukonen, Sarah Jarosz, and Jim Lauderdale.
According to MerleFest officials, over 80,000 people attended and or participated in the festival this year. 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.
“We've had an incredible weekend," Festival Director Ted Hagaman said in a press release. “With over 100 artists on 13 stages over the four days, we again feel we succeeded in providing a quality and successful event for all involved. Preliminary numbers show we attracted thousands of fans from all over the world. This event could not happen without the work and dedication of our 4,000-plus volunteers and the many great safety and service agencies in Northwestern North Carolina. We're already looking forward to MerleFest 2018."