MerleFest, presented by Window World, finished its 31st year on a high note with an unparalleled performance by the Steep Canyon Rangers, special guest Steve Martin, and surprise appearances from Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Alison Brown, Bryan Sutton, and Jens Kruger of the Kruger Brothers. Early estimates show that from its start on Thursday, April 26, to its close on Sunday, April 29, participation over the festival’s four days exceeded 75,000 attendees and artists from across the world. MerleFest, held on the campus of Wilkes Community College, is the primary fundraiser for the WCC Foundation, which funds scholarships, capital projects, and other educational needs.
More than 120 incredible performers contributed to the success of this year’s festival, some as returning artists and some as newcomers. In addition to The Steep Canyon Rangers and Friends with special guest Steve Martin, this year’s lineup included Kris Kristofferson, Jamey Johnson, The Mavericks, Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, Robert Earl Keen, Rhiannon Giddens, Jerry Douglas and Tommy Emmanuel, Sam Bush, The Devil Makes Three, Jim Lauderdale and Buddy Miller with the North Mississippi Allstars, Jerry Douglas Band with Special Guest John Medeski, Mandolin Orange, Elephant Revival, Mission Temple Fireworks Revival featuring Paul Thorn & Band, The Blind Boys of Alabama and The McCrary Sisters, Alison Brown, Rodney Crowell, Brandy Clark, Shinyribs, Peter Rowan, and Balsam Range with Atlanta Pops Orchestra Ensemble, among others.
Every year, music fans experience what has become known as “MerleFest Moments.” These moments range from special collaborations and joint performances to the beloved Midnight Jam, adding a special element to the festival’s rich history.
Thursday night’s MerleFest Moment was Kris Kristofferson’s highly-anticipated MerleFest debut, with backing band The Strangers (Merle Haggard’s original backing band and son Ben Haggard). The night closed with Grammy award winning stunners The Mavericks, who left festival-goers speechless with their high-energy set from the Watson Stage. Thursday also included sets from Texas songwriter Robert Earl Keen, Wilkesboro’s own Kruger Brothers, and funky-roots outfit Shinyribs, who performed a festival-favorite rendition of “All About That Bass”.
On Friday afternoon, MerleFest was buzzing with excitement for country artist Jamey Johnson, who capped the night with a powerful performance on the Watson Stage; during one of the day’s press conferences, Johnson named Kristofferson as his favorite songwriter. Earlier that evening, Grammy-winning folk artists and MerleFest veterans Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn performed their last show before welcoming their second child, charming the audience with tales of family life on the road. Another popular moment came from North Carolina natives Mandolin Orange, and a Sunset Session with The Devil Makes Three. The day also included stellar performances from Balsam Range with Atlanta Pops Orchestra Ensemble, Brandy Clark and Rodney Crowell, as well as the announcement of the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest winners. For more details about the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest and a full list of winners, visit https://conta.cc/2HwgpuS.
Saturday was packed with exciting events and musical genius; the first being Grammy award winner and former Carolina Chocolate Drop Rhiannon Giddens. Later that evening, Jerry Douglas and Tommy Emmanuel took the stage after announcing their upcoming tour together at the day’s press conference. Sam Bush was next on the Watson Stage, paying tribute to Doc and Merle Watson with a lively, sentimental set. To close out the Watson Stage, Americana king Jim Lauderdale played with Buddy Miller and the North Mississippi Allstars, along with special guest and longtime bassist for Jack White, Dominic Davis.
Other highlights included The Reunion Jam, which brought Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Bryan Sutton, John Cowan and more to the same stage; performances by Town Mountain and Dead Horses; and one of genre-defying Elephant Revival’s last shows together. The highly anticipated and respected MerleFest Album Hour tradition honored Tom Petty with a full cover of Full Moon Fever performed by The Waybacks, Mike Farris and John Cowan. The collaboration offered fans several surprises, including finale “American Girl.”
North Carolina’s own Town Mountain hosted the first annual Saturday Night Barn Dance, a Merlefest moment that brought festival-goers closer than just music alone.
BGS’s Midnight Jam followed the Barn Dance, hosted by Lauderdale and Town Mountain, closed Saturday evening. Festival goers enjoyed performances from a variety of festival acts, including Town Mountain and Jim Lauderdale’s take on “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down”; North Mississippi Allstars joined by Dominic Davis on upright bass covering “Pallet on Your Floor”; and Mandolin Orange with Bobby Britt (Town Mountain) and Tommy Emmanuel performing “Stone Wall Around Your Heart.”
Sunday morning welcomed sunshine and a performance from Irish “Originators of Celtgrass” We Banjo 3. Alison Brown took to the Watson stage and was followed by an exclusive MerleFest performance featuring Paul Thorn & Band, The Blind Boys of Alabama and The McCrary Sisters, collectively dubbed “Mission Temple Fireworks Revival.” The afternoon continued with the Jerry Douglas Band and special guest John Medeski. The Steep Canyon Rangers closed out the festival with esteemed banjo player Steve Martin; they were joined on stage by special surprise guests Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Alison Brown, Bryan Sutton, and Jens Kruger of the Kruger Brothers.
MerleFest has always been known for discovering emerging talent in American roots music. From Old Crow Medicine Show to Gillian Welch and the Avett Brothers to Tift Merritt, careers blossom from breakout performances on MerleFest stages. The 2018 MerleFest lineup continues this trend, presenting breakout and up-and-coming artists like Wesley Bright & The Honeytones, Cane Mill Road, Cicada Rhythm, Doolin’, Lindsay Lou, My bubba, Sarah Jane Scouten, The Andrew Collins Trio, The East Pointers, The Lonesome Ace Stringband, The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys, and more.
MerleFest continues to celebrate the life and music of Doc and Merle Watson as the legacy of their music is the artistic center of the festival. Musician, composer and storyteller T. Michael Coleman joined Doc and Merle to tour the world and help create countless Grammy-nominated and Grammy-awarded recordings. Coleman has joined the festival in its mission to keep Doc and Merle at the heart of MerleFest. His popular annual Saturday “Memories of Doc & Merle” set is part of that mission. Doc’s brother, David Watson, attended the spirited celebration of his family’s legacy for the thirty-first time.
In addition to promoting “traditional plus” music, a term coined by Doc Watson to describe the wide variety of musical genres and styles celebrated at MerleFest, the festival also featured heritage crafts demonstrations, instrument picking lessons and jam sessions, dancing, and music education workshops.
“We’ve had an incredible weekend,” Festival Director Ted Hagaman said. “With over 120 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. We appreciate their support. 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 2019.”
“Giving back is one of Window World’s core values,” said Window World, Inc. Chairman and CEO Tammy Whitworth. “And what better way to embrace the community than MerleFest, the single largest fundraiser for Wilkes Community College! We’re proud that Window World is headquartered in Wilkes County, and we consider it a privilege to support exceptional educational opportunities in the community through our sponsorship of MerleFest.”