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.
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.
Photo by Greg Wallace
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
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.