MERLEFEST 2004: AMERICANA AT ITS BEST

For 17 years Merlefest gathers the best of the best for the largest and most diverse Americana music festival in the country. From bluegrass (Earl Scruggs, Tony Rice, and The Kruger Brothers), to old time music (the Reeltime Travelers, Tara Nevins), to country (Vince Gill, Rosanne Cash, and Kelly Willis), and everything in between (Peter Rowan and Reggaebilly, Mark O’Connor, Nickel Creek, Donna the Buffalo), Merlefest covers the entire spectrum.

The annual pilgrimage to Wilkesboro, NC is in honor of Merle Watson, son of legendary flatpicker Doc Watson. It is an annual rite of spring and the unofficial start to the festival season. This year’s festival felt like a changing of the guard, with the emergence of many new acoustic acts. Here's a look at some of the newer bands on the scene.

Out with the Old, in With the New

Aussie Americana invades the US in the form of the Waifs. This band has opened up for Bob Dylan and brought its acoustic folk rock to the Merlefest stage. Comprised of three accomplished singer/songwriters, the music is fun, upbeat, and well crafted. Jangly guitars and gorgeous vocals make this a band to see.


Reeltime Travelers
Photo by Greg Wallace
Merlefest's Traditional Stage has long been an integral part of the festival, featuring true old-time mountain music. Thanks to the Reeltime Travelers, there is renewed interest and excitement in this often overlooked genre. This young band is writing volumes of original material in the old-time tradition. Guitarist Martha Scanlan wrote and performed perhaps their best original number, "Hallelujah." They also have plenty of songs about whiskey, trains, and spurned lovers. The banjo is played clawhammer style, half-strummed, half-picked. Fiddle player Heidi Andrade often takes breaks, stomping out the rhythm in an impressive display of genuine Appalachian clogging. This young band is the future of old-time music. The Reeltime Travelers take home my unofficial Merlefest MVP award for their contribution to old-time music and being the talk of the festival.


Bering Strait
One of the joys of such a large festival is finding out about exciting new bands. Over on the Americana Stage, the Two High String Band performed a marvelous set. The talented duo of Billy and Bryn Bright are masters of mandolin and bass, respectively. The Brights have played extensively with Peter Rowan in his Texas Trio and even released their own solo disc. Joined by guitarists Brian Smith and Geoff Union, the Two High String Band plays John Hartford-influenced string music with clean picking and melodic harmonies. In fact the spirit of John Hartford was pervasive throughout the weekend. Many artists mentioned him by name and many more played his songs, making him the most covered artist at the festival.

Making a splash before they even landed, Bering Strait combine hard-driving folk rock with a touch of bluegrass. The band has appeared on the news program 60 Minutes twice and has been nominated for a Grammy. Their fun, upbeat music has an international flavor and was well-received at Merlefest. The pianist possesses a beautiful voice and the banjo player is certainly proficient. Being new to the Merlefest experience, the band was in awe of all of their musical heroes casually strolling around the festival. The media has lavished much attention upon Bering Strait, probably due to the novelty of a Russian band playing country music and the fact that they are all very striking looking Europeans. With all the publicity behind them and definite enthusiasm for their music, Bering Strait is a band on the rise.

Musicians Making a Name for Themselves


Natalie MacMaster
No one has seen his or her career take off like fiddle virtuoso Natalie MacMaster. Brought up in Cape Brenton, Canada, she quickly picked up traditional fiddle, learning the ancient tunes that came to the new world from Scotland. By dragging those traditional songs into the 21st century she has made a name for herself on the festival circuit. A ball of electricity and an unbelievable musician, Natalie's energy shone throughout her set as she fiddled and danced, often simultaneously. While she plays fairly straight-up traditional melodies, the full power of her backing band makes her music anything but standard. She plays with an electric guitar, drums, electric bass, keyboards, and sometimes bagpipes or recorders, and the band gives the old melodies new drive and energy. Her Main Stage performance was a crowd pleaser as she blazed through songs and told stories in her modest Canadian accent. She is also true to her roots, busting out a 300-year-old tune entitled "Blue Bonnets over the Boarder." For fiddle fans or those who just want to see a musician in her prime, check out Natalie and her band on tour.

It's slightly ironic that The Kruger Brothers, Uwe and Jens, who hail from Switzerland, play some of the most honest Americana music today. But play it they do, and very well. Jens especially is lightning fast on the banjo, belting out runs so fast they blend into one another and create a blazing tapestry of notes. Uwe has a deep rich voice that is accented when he speaks, but he sounds like a true southerner when he sings. Part of their popularity is their song selection; they played numbers like "I Know You Rider" and "Tennessee Stud" they gave these traditional selections new life. Though they've been appearing regularly at Merlefest since 1997, they recently moved to the US and released a brand new album called Choices.

Nashville's hottest session musician is Bryan Sutton. Bryan has earned the reputation as the go-to guitarist for bluegrass. He appeared a number of times at Merlefest, including a notable Cabin Stage set on Friday. After playing a few solo tunes, he was joined by Tim O'Brien and Bela Fleck, making for a mini all-star jam. The highlight was when Bryan's father Jerry Sutton came out to play a duet. Look for Bryan's latest solo album Bluegrass Guitar for an example of his fine flatpicking.

Adding to the buzz surrounding the old-time music this year, Tara Nevins performed three solo sets throughout the festival. Known as the fiddle player for Donna the Buffalo, Tara’s real love is authentic country music. She brought the musicians who played on her solo release Mule To Ride, including the smallest banjo ever, appropriately named the "Banjuke." The set was a fantastic journey through Appalachia both old and new.


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