By Samir Shukla
The four-day roots music gathering MerleFest took place from April 23 - 26 on the campus of Wilkes Community College, Wilkesboro, NC with over 78,000 folks attending. MerleFest has been showcasing “traditional plus” music, including bluegrass and old-time folk music of the Appalachian region along with country, gospel, Americana, blues and rock since 1988. The festival hosts an eclectic mix of artists performing on its 13 stages during the course of the event.
The Del McCoury Band playing Woody Guthrie songs as well as originals and Chatham County Line’s harmony-laden gig were among the highlights of Friday’s performances.
On Saturday night guitarist Peter Rowan joined the headliners Avett Brothers to perform “‘Til the End of the World Rolls ‘Round,” a song from the 1974 bluegrass album Old & In The Way, which was recorded by Rowan, Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, Vassar Clements, and John Kahn.
A Saturday afternoon highlight was “The Hillside Album Hour,” which was hosted by The Waybacks and included guests Joan Osborne, Jim Lauderdale, Sam Bush and Jens Kruger. The performers featured Bruce Springsteen’s classic 1984 album Born in the U.S.A. The annual “Hour” highlights performance of one selected album, which remains secret until the show begins.
Dwight Yoakam headlined on Sunday. The festival also featured jam sessions all throughout festival grounds on all days. Folks brought their guitars, banjos, fiddles, voices, and joined the informal jams.
Other performers this year included The Marshall Tucker Band, Trampled By Turtles, Lee Ann Womack, Hot Rize, Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn, Robert Earl Keen, Steep Canyon Rangers, The Kruger Brothers with the Kontras Quartet, The Earls of Leicester, Bruce Robinson and Kelly Willis, Scythian, The Spinney Brothers, The Gibson Brothers, Blue Highway, The Steel Wheels, Paul Thorn and many others.
The festival also featured heritage crafts demonstrations, instrument picking lessons and jam sessions, dancing, instrument contests, music education workshops and the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest. The Shoppes at MerleFest showcased heritage crafts, merchandise vendors, and concessions.
MerleFest organizers strive to give back to the community. An outreach program took place on Thursday, with MerleFest artists giving performances for nearly 7,000 children at local schools. On Friday morning more than 3,000 school children from Wilkes and surrounding counties attended the festival. MerleFest is the primary fundraiser for the WCC Endowment Corporation, funding scholarships, capital projects and other educational needs.
The festival was founded in memory of the son of the late American music legend Doc Watson, guitarist Eddy Merle Watson. MerleFest 2016 will be held at Wilkes Community College on April 28-May 1, 2016. Details at MerleFest.org.