WILKESBORO, N.C. — It wouldn’t be MerleFest if it didn’t rain. And unfortunately, after two gorgeous spring days of making music and memories at the 28th annual Americana music festival on the Wilkes Community College campus deep in the Blue Ridge Mountain foothills, the forecast is calling for just that all day Saturday. But don’t let the weathermen (and women) deter you from heading out to what promises to be another day full of musical surprises and more.
Saturday’s performance highlights include North Carolina natives The Avett Brothers return to the Watson Stage in addition to The Gibson Brothers, Peter Rowan and the Doc Watson Tribute put together by none other than T. Michael Coleman, a Grammy-winning bassist who played with both Merle and Doc and has made it his mission to keep their memories alive.
Diehard fans of The Avetts will disagree (Tanya Marsh I am talking to you), but the highlight of Saturday for many MerleFest fans will come at 4:01 p.m. when James Nash, leader of the San Francisco-based The Waybacks, announces the much-anticipated focus of his band and their special guests — Joan Osborne, Sam Bush, Jim Lauderdale, and Jens Kruger — for the next hour (or two). The Hillside Album Hour, which began in 2008, quickly became the biggest attended event outside of the Watson Stage performances. Nash and his bandmates started giving clues for this year’s album (a closely held secret until they hit the stage for the Album Hour) on social media about a month before the festival. This year’s clues are:
CLUE #1: We promise to treat you right.
CLUE #2: Myrtle Grant, his ex, wanted nightly bar romance.
CLUE #3: Smiling rookie flips out on two joints.
CLUE #4: She was a friend of mine.
“This year’s Album Hour is our most ambitious to date,” Nash said in an interview after today’s Waybacks performance in the Walker Center. “We’re taking a classic American album and exploring its lyrical themes by juxtaposing music from other artists and time periods. The album we’ve chosen is from the mid-’80s (our first from that decade). We’ve been rehearsing with Joan (Osborne) using FaceTime.”
With more 80 acts performing on 13 stages during the four-day festival, attendees can expect the unexpected with special surprises, spontaneous jam sessions and one-of-a-kind musical collaborations like the Waybacks’ Hillside Album Hour.
Finalists in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest competed on Friday to determine who won the opportunity to record a song with Pinecastle Records and perform on the Cabin Stage. Among the country finalists was Madison, N.C.’s own singer-songwriter Carri Smithey and her bandmates, Josh Coe of Saxapahaw, N.C., and Ryan Burgess and Keith Ingalls of Burlington (where Smithey now calls home as well) and The Ends. They co-wrote and recorded two songs that Smithey entered in the contest as the Carri Smithey Band and the judges chose, “No More,” to be performed at the contest out of more than 600 entries.
“I still can’t believe I am here,” Smithey said after performing on the Austin Stage on Saturday afternoon. The trio of Smithey, Coe and Burgess performed ending up with $50 and third place for their efforts, but the fact that they had the chance to attend and perform at MerleFest made all three feel like winners, Smithey said. “It was definitely worth it,” she added. “I still can’t believe they chose our song after listening to the other finalists. They were all great.”
The winners of the country songwriting contest were:
1st Place – Hunter and Suzy Owens (Sydney, Australia) – “It Would Be Easier”
2nd Place – Savannah Smith (Asheville, N.C.) – “Mississippi”
3rd Place – Carri Smithey (Burlington, N.C.), Josh Coe (Saxapahaw, N.C.), Ryan Burgess (Burlington, N.C.) and Keith Ingalls (Burlington, N.C.) – “No More.”
MerleFest 2015, presented by Window World, runs through Sunday, April 26. Sunday’s headliners include Paul Thorn, Robert Earl Keen and Dwight Yoakam, making his MerleFest debut. The Kruger Brothers Kontras Quartet promises to be another highlight. And don’t miss The Gospel Hour with Jim Avett, father of The Avetts Brothers, who is sometime joined by his famous sons; Willie Watson (Merle Watson’s son and Doc Watson’s grandson); Steep Canyon Rangers; Nashville Bluegrass Band; the Black Lillies; Shannon Whitworth; and Brandon Whyde & Devil’s Keep, just to name a few. Tickets for both days are still available.
As in previous years, the list of MerleFest performers fits the “traditional plus” definition originally described by the late Doc Watson. Watson coined this term to describe the unique mix of music found at MerleFest: traditional, roots-oriented sounds of the Appalachian region, including bluegrass and old-time music, and expanded to include Americana, country, blues, rock, “plus whatever other styles we were in the mood to play,” Doc said.
The complete lineup and stage schedules are posted at www.merlefest.org and available on the MerleFest mobile app; festival updates are delivered via Twitter (@MerleFest) and Facebook.