For 30 years, the town of Wilkesboro, NC has played host to one of the nation's best roots music festivals. Merlefest was started to honor Eddy Merle Watson, son of roots music pioneer Doc Watson, and has consistently drawn some of the best country, bluegrass, and Americana artists in the world to participate in what it calls “tradition plus,” honoring the roots of those genres while forging new paths. The 2017 lineup is no exception to this rule and roots music lovers could find two dozen or more acts on their want list, but the five shows listed here stand out as must-see either for their uniqueness or just for the sheer volume of talent present on the stage.
If you're looking for unique performances, Merlefest has gone above and beyond for their 30th anniversary celebration by bringing The Transatlantic Sessions not only to the festival for the first time, but to America for the first time. Typically recorded in Scotland, The Transatlantic Sessions bring together some of America and The UK's best musicians for once in a lifetime collaborations. In addition to regular hosts Jerry Douglas and Aly Bain, Merlefest's Transatlantic Sessions will feature folk rock legend James Taylor, 2017 Grammy Award winning vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Sarah Jarosz, Irish guitarist John Doyle, and many more. The Transatlantic Sessions will perform at Merlefest's Watson Stage on Friday, April 28.
Merlefest headliners The Avett Brothers are a rare Americana act that has developed an accessible enough sound to pack arenas and anchor major festivals while still retaining all of the musical prowess to retain a significant fanbase even among the most hardcore roots music enthusiasts. Led by brothers Jim and Seth Avett, The Avett Brothers have found success by blending their North Carolina roots with dashes of pop, punk, rock, and even old time melodies. The result is the very definition of Merlefest's “Roots Plus” ethos and their hyper-kinetic stage performances are sure to keep audiences glued to their set. The Avett Brothers will perform at Merlefest's Watson Stage on Thursday, April 27.
The Waybacks may not be nearly as well known as The Avett Brothers or James Taylor, but to Merlefest regulars, they are as in demand as either of those performers. This is due to The Waybacks' annual Hillside Album Hour. At this performance, The Waybacks put their own rootsy spin on a front to back cover of a classic rock gem. While the band does release clues to which album they are doing on their Facebook page, the identity of the cover remains a secret. Past Hillside Album Hour albums have included The Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers, The Beatles' Abbey Road, and Led Zeppelin II. The Waybacks will perform Saturday, April 29 at the Hillside Stage.
North Carolina-based bluegrass act Chatham County Line has spent more than a decade refining their unique musical style, with the band throwing back to the past by gathering their acoustic instruments around a single microphone to perform. If that's the version of the band you want, they will be performing at Merlefest as well. But of more interest to those looking for a unique musical experience will be the performance listed as Chatham County Line Electric Holiday. For their Electric Holiday shows, Chatham County line puts aside their acoustic instruments for electric guitars and shows a more rocking approach to their hits and a host of covers. Chatham County Line Electric Holiday will perform on Friday April 28 at Cabin Stage.
Reunion Jam with Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Bryan Sutton, and Mark Schatz
All five of the musicians scheduled to play Reunion Jam are performing with their own acts at some point during the weekend and all are sure to be popular adds. Put them together and you have some of the best talent in progressive bluegrass ever assembled on one stage. Sam Bush and Bela Fleck helped invent progressive bluegrass in the '70s as part of Newgrass Revival and both have pushed the boundaries of mandolin and banjo respectively since. Jerry Douglas is considered the master of the dobro, both for his solo work and as bandleader of Union Station with Alison Krauss. Add in Bryan Sutton and Mark Schatz, two of the most in demand instrumentalists in the world, and you have a show that can't be missed. Reunion Jam will perform on Saturday, April 29 at the Watson Stage.
Merlefest will take place April 27-30 at Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, NC. Visit the festival's official website for tickets and details.