MerleFest, the annual homecoming for roots artists coming up April 28-May 1, 2016 in Wilkesboro, NC, has an enviable record for introducing new talent during its 29 years. Artists discovered at the festival include many of today’s hottest acts, including the Avett Brothers, Tift Merritt, Gillian Welsh and the Old Crow Medicine Show. This year’s lineup continues the trend. Here’s a top ten list of the rising stars of roots music, selected by the festival’s organizers, to check out this year.
Nashville based roots musician Billy Strings harks back to the rough-and-tumble days of early bluegrass. The 22-year-old has sometimes been called a bluegrass berserker as he howls his way through songs reminiscent of the early work of Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs. Billy Strings performs Thursday, Friday and Saturday at MerleFest.
High Plains Jamboree
A country bluegrass band based in Austin, High Plains Jamboree features a trio of top-notch songwriters, including mandolin player Brennen Leigh whose songs have been recorded by Sunny Sweeney and Grammy winner Lee Ann Womack, fiddler Beth Chrisman who won the Independent Music Awards Country Song of the Year award, and guitarist Noel McKay who co-wrote “El Coyote” with Guy Clark in 1993 and won a Grammy for Best Folk Album. They are joined by bassist and old time banjo player Simon Flory, a veteran of many performances with his mentor, bluegrass legend Donny Catron of the Tennessee Gentlemen. High Plains Jamboree performs Saturday at MerleFest.
Jeff Scroggins & Colorado
This high-energy five-piece from Denver, Colorado, plays a distinctive brand of bluegrass featuring world-class banjo and mandolin playing, incredible vocals, an energetic rhythm, and an easy stage banter. The band is led by two-time National Banjo Champion Jeff Scroggins, and also features Jeff’s son Tristan, already an award-winning mandolin player at 20, and West Virginia native Greg Blake, twice nominated for Traditional Male Vocalist of the Year award by the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America (SPBGMA) as well as five consecutive wins as SPBGMA’s Guitarist of the Year. Jeff Scroggins & Colorado perform Thursday and Saturday at MerleFest.
Kacy & Clayton
This duo from a rural area of Saskatchewan, Canada, plays tunes inspired by traditional tunes from Appalachia and the British Isles. Kacy Anderson (vocals, violin) and Clayton Linthicum (guitar, melodeon, vocals), second cousins who have been playing together since childhood, received a warm reception at this year’s SXSW with their uncluttered arrangements featuring Katy’s pure vocals and Clayton’s fingerpicking style. Kacy & Clayton perform Friday at Merlefest.
Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys
Michigan Americana ensemble Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys comes to MerleFest hot off the release of its new album Ionia, named for the band’s hometown. Lead vocalist Lindsay Lou has a voice that combines the talents of a jazz, blues and folk singer, backed by driving instrumentals of her Flatbelly band. The band’s alt-bluegrass vibe was a hit on Mountain Stage which called its set one of the 12 best live performances of the year, while Ionia was named Best Acoustic Album of 2015 by Giant Step. Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys perform Saturday at MerleFest.
Portland, Oregon artist Liz Vice delivers gospel, soul and R&B songs with a dynamic and powerful voice. Her debut album, There’s A Light (2015), received a positive reception on NPR Music. Liz Vice performs Sunday at MerleFest.
Penny & Sparrow
Singer-songwriter duo Andy Baxter and Kyle Jahnke out of Austin, Texas, discovered a mutual love of writing songs and recording them while roommates at the University of Texas. Their latest album, Let a Lover Drown You, is their fourth, all filled with memorable lyrics, haunting melodies, tight harmonies and raw emotions. Penny & Sparrow perform Saturday at MerleFest.
Born in rural North Carolina, the son of classically trained musicians, Seth Walker in the past decade has established a major presence on the roots music scene playing blues, gospel, jazz, country, and R&B. He has released eight albums in various genres, including 2009’s Leap of Faith, which rose to #2 on Billboard’s Blues Album chart. Seth Walker performs Friday at MerleFest.
Kevin Russell, founder of The Gourds, an Austin band of note, developed Shinyribs as a new solo project after his band’s 18 year run. A powerful singer, his performance is a mix of country-soul and swamp-funk, and just plain fun. Russell leads this new band through a mix of originals and old favorites, playing his 6-string Uke or and electric guitar, often singing a cappella. Kevin is also a visual artist, drawing the comic strip "Lil' Whodat.” Shinyribs performs Saturday at MerleFest.
The Brothers Comatose
This string band from San Francisco, fronted by brothers Ben and Alex Morrison, is a favorite with West Coast audiences and is rapidly expanding its fan base nationally with its fusion of bluegrass and rock ‘n roll fun. The band’s second album, City of Gold, is due out in May. The Brothers Comatose play on Friday at MerleFest.
The Slocan Ramblers
This young Toronto based band is considered Canada’s top bluegrass band on the rise. The band won the 2015 Edmonton Folk Fest Emerging Artist Award and comes to MerleFest with a new album, Coffee Creek. The Slocan Ramblers play Thursday and Friday at MerleFest.
For a full schedule of MerleFest performances and ticket options, visit the MerleFest website.