The pickins' have never been slim on the campus of Wilkes Community College over the last weekend of April, and this year was of no exception. Merlefest, the gold standard of acoustic music festivals, served up yet another heaping helping of some of the finest musicians across a wide spectrum of roots-music categories — and a number of stellar locally based acts graced the stages there, as well: among them, Dehlia Low, Shannon Whitworth, Johnson's Crossroad, Laura Boosinger and of course, the Steep Canyon Rangers.
It's what separates Merlefest from a mere fest – the difference between experiencing a weekend full of musical genius and simply enduring days of exposure to ultraviolet rays.
This year's fest attracted more than 76,000 people — chalk it up to a supercharged schedule of artists and four entirely rain-free days — a weekend bookended by legendary bluesman Taj Mahal and country stars The Zac Brown Band on Thursday evening and phenoms The Avett Brothers closing on Sunday.
The regulars were all there. Doc and Richard Watson, Sam Bush, Peter Rowan, David Holt, the Kruger Brothers, Pete & Joan Wernick and other Merlefest favorites made appearances throughout the weekend. Doc and his friends performed the classic Doc-abilly set Saturday evening, well-attended as always. It was followed by the crowd-favorite Tribute to Merle set, a showcase of songs and special stories in memory of festival namesake, Eddy Merle Watson (Doc's son who died in a tractor accident).
The collaborations were another highlight. Festival-goers flooded the hillside for The Hillside Album Hour, featuring a performance of the Beatles' album Abbey Road by The Waybacks and a host of friends, most notably Sarah Dugas, Brevard-based Shannon Whitworth, Byron House, Jerry Douglas, Jim Lauderdale and Elvis Costello. Over at the Watson Stage, the highly-anticipated "An Evening of Bluegrass and Banjo" performed by Steve Martin and our own Steep Canyon Rangers was a crowd fave. Later that night, Merlefest fed the fire with the midnight jam at the Walker Center, hosted by Zac Brown and featuring The Duhks, The Greencards, Peter Rowan and several other late-night pickers. Sacred-steel ensemble The Lee Boys and the mighty fine bluegrass outfit The Travelin' McCourys (collaborators since the 2008 Warren Haynes Christmas Jam) contributed a stellar performance on Sunday afternoon.
Asheville's Dehlia Low had its Merlefest debut, sharing the Americana Stage Saturday with such distinguished acts as Cadillac Sky and The Wilders, then wowing the mainstage audience Sunday afternoon with a terrific performance.
For a gallery of Merlefest photos shot by Daniel Coston for Mountain Xpress, visit www.mountainx.com/gallery. For a podcast of Merlefest acts, visit www.fretknotradiohour.com.
Chris Weller is executive producer for Fret Knot Radio Hour.