WILKESBORO, N.C. — Thousands of music fans were eager for the opening day of Merlefest on Thursday (April 29), but perhaps none more than Zac Brown. A recent Grammy winner for best new artist, Brown told the audience he’d been coming to the long-running, wide-ranging music festival since the early ’90s and remembered putting his name in a hat to play the coffee shop stage back in the day. He was pleased to add that he could now cross off a headlining set at Merlefest from his life’s bucket list.
“We’re going to be here for the next three days, soaking up the atmosphere,” he declared near the end of the Zac Brown Band’s two-hour set. “I think this is the greatest festival in the world!” As he closed his set just after midnight with “Toes,” he happily sang, “Life is good today — damn right! — life is good today.”
Although the band’s set was by far the longest of the night, Brown insisted he wanted to play for a few more hours. However, he had weighted the front of his set with four opening acts, giving him far less time than necessary to get through all of his material. But many of his show’s highlights remained intact: “America the Beautiful” leading into “Chicken Fried,” a soothing blend of “Free” with Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” and a preview of new music with the candid ballad, “Colder Weather,” and the jaunty tune, “Settle Me Down.”
Husband-and-wife duo Joey & Rory kindly delivered “Sweet Emmylou” just before the Zac Brown Band hit the stage. Brown later joined them for “Cheater, Cheater,” as well as jamming with three artists from his own label, with each one given two songs each. When Brown and his bandmates finally got started on their own set, they also roused the sober crowd with burning renditions of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” among a few other cover tunes.
Yes, it was indeed a sober crowd. Alcohol isn’t sold at Merlefest, which is held on the campus of Wilkes Community College. Folks simply unfold their lawn chairs, or grab plastic ones in the reserved area, and just take it easy for a few hours. It’s the only time I’ve been to a music festival without seeing at least one drunk person stumbling from stage to stage.
Playing on the Cabin Stage, right next to the main stage, the SteelDrivers quickly warmed up the crowd on a chilly evening. They served as a neat transition between the Zac Brown Band and Taj Majal, who blends blues with reggae and calypso music, not to mention an all-around cool vibe. When the Taj Majal Trio took the stage at 8 p.m., I immediately recognized the melody — “Talking to Casey,” one of my favorite tunes by acoustic guitarist Doc Watson and his late son, Merle Watson, for whom the festival was named and founded in 1988. Even though I’m unfamiliar with Taj Mahal’s music, those familiar notes put me right as ease. These days, it appears that Merlefest is less of a bluegrass festival and more of an opportunity to discover a wide variety of roots music.
But if you did come for bluegrass, then Rhonda Vincent & the Rage were happy to provide it. During their early evening set, Vincent admitted that she’d been battling bronchitis for 15 days. The illness was occasionally reflected in her vocals, yet she did an admirable job of singing a few tunes, such as “I’ve Forgotten You,” Poco’s “Crazy Love” and Ronnie Milsap’s “Back on My Mind Again.” Mostly, though, she relied on her band to take lead vocals and to kick off instrumental numbers like “Frankie Belle.” Fortunately for her, she has surrounded herself with high caliber musicians, including two recent college graduates who had never played Merlefest.
One of the highlights of their set was the lively instrumental, “Whiskey Before Breakfast,” another one of my favorites tunes from a Doc Watson album. Referring to the festival’s no-alcohol rule, Vincent noted with a wink that she was compelled to change the name to “Martha White Biscuits for Breakfast.” She also noted she’ll become a mother-in-law in June when her fiddle player Hunter Berry marries her daughter, Sally Sandker.
I arrived at the festival grounds in mid-afternoon, just in time to catch full sets by the Belleville Outfit and the Duhks. Neither band falls squarely into any genre, but they both offered energetic sets to the early-arriving fans. The Duhks returned to Merlefest with a new live album — which is actually a recording of their 2009 concert at Merlefest and only available at the festival. They sang in French, played some fiddle tunes and closed the set with a soulful number about having “a funky good time.” Meanwhile, the Belleville Outfit proudly possesses a gypsy-jazz influence with a knack for writing (and finding) terrific melodies. They also smile a lot when they play, which isn’t something you often find in super-focused new bands.
Merlefest also brings in talented craftsmen to sell their wares in the marketplace, particularly the colorful local pottery and handmade jewelry. And if you want to stock up on T-shirts about how much you love the Earth, this is the place. Amateur musicians are also encouraged to join jam sessions and to try out the guitars, Dobros and banjos in the instrument tent. And if you’re a night owl, you can strum along with Zac Brown Band when they return to the festival spotlight to host the Midnight Jam on Saturday (May 1).
Other performers on the main stage this weekend include Little Feat, Sam Bush, Dierks Bentley and the Travelin’ McCourys, Dailey & Vincent, the Waybacks and Donna the Buffalo on Friday (April 30). Saturday’s (May 1) lineup features Elvis Costello and the Sugarcanes, Steve Martin with the Steep Canyon Rangers, Doc Watson, the Tony Rice Unit, Peter Rowan, John Cowan, Great Big Sea and Cadillac Sky. the Avett Brothers, W.P.A. and the Lee Boys close the festival on Sunday (May 2).