It appears that music festival season has snuck up on me and maybe you, as well. While AC/DC and Sturgill Simpson played at Coachella last weekend, Phuzz Phest in Winston-Salem, N.C., kicked off the 2015 season with an amazing, three-day lineup that featured an array of bands that attracted even the likes of me. While everything I heard was good (I can appreciate good music even if it’s not always my favorite genre), some of my favorites were the North Carolina acts including Caleb Caudle, The Genuine, Estrangers, Tyler Nail and Mac McCaughan. And this weekend, as country fans flock to Stage Coach in California, MerleFest fans will be happy to know that tickets are still available for the festival that founder, the legendary Doc Watson, called “traditional plus.” Over the years that phrase that Watson used to describe the music he and his son, festival-namesake Merle Watson, played has been stretched to include a number of big and not-so big acts including The Doobie Brothers, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, The Dixie Chicks, Old Crow Medicine Show, Carolina Chocolate Drops, and the Avett Brothers.
Despite Doc Watson’s absence (he died in 2012), MerleFest Director Ted Hageman and Talent Booker Steve Johnson have maintained his formula of preserving traditional acoustic music while giving a nod to all musical genres.
This year is no exception. The four-day event that draws on average 80,000 fans to the campus of Wilkes Community College in North Wilkesboro, N.C., starts Thursday, April 23. The festival, which features more than 80 performers on 13 stages, that musicians and fans alike consider a “homecoming” will get off to a rousing start with the Raleigh-based Scythian, which describe themselves as “Celctic with an edge” on the main Watson Stage at 4 p.m.
A MerleFest fan favorite, Scythian is releasing its newest album, “Old Tin Can,” on the same day the festival starts. According to the band’s website, “What began as a simple project took on a life of its own, and the fellas are thrilled to be releasing this album of some of their favorite tunes. Featuring stirring ballads made known by the likes of Doc Watson, the Carter Family and Christie Moore, spirited jigs, soulful waltzes and even a Ukrainian Kozak love song, ‘Old Tin Can’ reveals the roots of the tree that is now Scythian.”
Set to follow Scythian on the Watson Stage at 5 p.m. is LeeAnn Womack, perhaps Nashville’s most overlooked female performer. Her newest album, “The Way That I’m Livin’,” could be considered a double entendre given that the country star known for such hits as “I Hope You Dance,” has traded her MCA Nashville label for the independent Sugar Hill. “I was always an independent artist stuck on a major label,” Womack told the Philadelphia Inquirer in a recent interview. I think this Grammy-nominated album is the best of her career so far — think early Dolly Parton meets Julie Miller — and reveals that it was a risk worth taking.
Husband and wife dueling banjo pickin’ duo Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn take the stage at 7 p.m. followed by incomparable Tim O’Brien and Dr. Banjo Peter Wernick reunited as Hot Rize with Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers at 8:30 p.m. Fleck, formerly of the Flecktones and New Grass Revival, has been called the world’s greatest banjo player. He has recently teamed up with Washburn, who is a singer-songwriter with an amazing voice and knows her way around a clawhammer banjo.
O’Brien and Wernick recently reunited as Hot Rize for the first time in 24 years with a new album, “When I’m Free.” The Wall Street Journal calls Hot Rize, “The link between classic bluegrass and modern ‘jamgrass’ bands,” such as Leftover Salmon.
I’m also looking forward to hearing Logan Brill perform for the first time at MerleFest on the adjacent Cabin Stage at 9:45 before the night rounds out with the amazing Trampled by Turtles at 10:15. Want to warm up after what promises to be a chilly evening in the Blue Ridge foothills? Head over to the opening night Dance Jam with Donna the Buffalo in the Dance Tent, where they will be heating things up from 10 to 11:30 p.m.
Check back here for insights on the rest of the weekend’s daily schedule, which will be posted a day ahead of time throughout the festival. Enjoy!