WILKESBORO, N.C. — The Avett Brothers injected a sense of anticipation in the days leading up to their Sunday night (April 27) appearance at MerleFest. Wherever you wandered in the event, which began on Thursday, you’d hear people mention the band’s name in casual conversation, like a friend who was coming to visit. In a way, that’s exactly how it was.
Finally on a rainy afternoon, with no lightning in sight, you couldn’t miss the thunderous roar when the Avett Brothers took the stage.
Scott and Seth Avett grew up near Concord, N.C., about 90 miles from the festival grounds. They attended the event with their family in the 1990s, then started getting gigs there as a band in the 2000s. A few songs into their set, they reminisced about applying for MerleFest for the first time, knowing their new band wasn’t really up to par with the other talent.
They decided if they could get into MerleFest, they’d carry on with the band — and the rest is history. Since then, their career has grown from regional festivals and clubs to theaters and arenas. Today the Avett Brothers consider MerleFest a cornerstone of their musical foundation.
Rather than relying on their latest album, The Carpenter, for the bulk of their set list, the ensemble cherry-picked from across their catalog: “Laundry Room,” “Down With the Shine,” and “Distraction #74” were some of the highlights from the early part of the set. Later on, they made time for “Live and Die,” “Living of Love,” “Salina” and “February Seven,” while their cool cover of Buck Owens’ clever “Reno Lament” fit them to a T.
After an encore that featured their sister Bonnie on harmony on “Salvation Song,” they wrapped their set by putting their own spin on two tunes they learned from Doc Watson — “Shady Grove” and “Blue Ridge Mountain Blues.” Kudos to the band’s sound engineer for making the music crisp and clear, even for those fans weathering the dreary conditions far back on the grass.
Beyond the Avett Brothers, MerleFest has a longstanding reputation for developing roots artists. Because of the festival’s reliability, and because there is no alcohol to cause any distractions, fans tend to listen closely with a critical ear. Plus, nearly all of the artists play multiple shows during the event, sometimes twice a day, which makes it easier to be discovered by curious fans.
I didn’t get to hear all of the new artists on the lineup but I did catch the Black Lillies, a band out of Knoxville, Tenn., that melds bluegrass, Americana and country music into a vibe that is well-suited to their vividly written songs. The Honeycutters are another roots-oriented band who rely on pleasant melodies and exceptional songs but drawing on more of a first-person perspective.
Just prior to the Avett Brothers’ show, Pokey LaFarge and his combo delivered a batch of old-time tunes inspired by traditional American music. The one seemingly titled “You Never Know What the Rain Will Bring” was particularly appropriate. When we crossed paths in the media tent earlier in the day and I was introduced as a reporter from CMT.com, he leaned into my recorder to declare Lefty Frizzell as the greatest country singer of all time. (I hadn’t asked that question, but I did like the response.)
Meanwhile, with an admiration of Americana and classic country, Eilen Jewell considers herself the “Queen of the Minor Key,” and her twangy music backs up the claim. Her guitarist Jerry Miller is dazzling — and he just released a commendable album, New Road Under My Wheels. Later, I wandered up at the end of Delta Rae’s set, which brought a standing ovation from college-age crowd members who don’t mind hearing the band’s dramatic rock influence. On the flip side, I saw many older attendees who weren’t smiling as they shuffled off.
For music fans who expect things to be more familiar, MerleFest is still very accommodating. The roster this year included longtime roots artists like the the Del McCoury Band, Donna the Buffalo, Jim Lauderdale and Michael Martin Murphey. Saturday’s main stage lineup offered Peter Rowan, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band — now celebrated as elder statesmen after stretching the genre themselves a generation or two ago.
And where would these guys be without Doc Watson? As the locals know, the festival is named for the famed guitarist’s late son, Merle, a gifted musician in his own right. Doc passed away in May 2012, so this is the first year he hasn’t graced the stage himself. That brought a certain sadness to the event, although he was fondly memorialized all weekend through music and film clips. To many people at the festival, Watson was a much-admired friend and neighbor.
North Carolina is home to more than a few of the festival’s marquee names, too. The talented singer-songwriter Tift Merritt sang her heart out prior to the Avett Brothers’ set and has said she credits her career to winning the MerleFest songwriting competition in 2000. The Raleigh native also told the crowd she considers MerleFest among her favorite gigs in the world.
Meanwhile, the Grammy-winning Steep Canyon Rangers hail from Brevard, while Chatham Country Line offered to show folks around their hometown of Raleigh. I’m pleased to report that both of these bluegrass ensembles greeted fans with new music from upcoming projects.
MerleFest is viewed by many as the kick-off to the acoustic/bluegrass festival season. With the Avett Brothers’ music ringing across the mountains, not to mention a wealth of homegrown talent, the organizers set the bar high for the summer festival circuit.