MerleFest, the “annual homecoming of musicians and music fans” returns April 26 – 29 to Wilkesboro. It’s a four-day outdoor festival on the campus of Wilkes Community College, with 13 stages and more than 90 artists — all presented for music lovers’ enjoyment.
The 2018 festival line-up is stellar. Headliners include singer/songwriter/actor Kris Kristofferson, country singer/songwriter Jamey Johnson, Brevard’s Steep Canyon Rangers and Friends with Steve Martin, banjo legend Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, breakthrough artist Rhiannon Giddens and perennial favorite, Sam Bush.
MerleFest was founded in 1988 in memory of guitarist Eddy Merle Watson, son of the late American music legend Doc Watson. The festival is a gathering of what Doc Watson called ‘traditional-plus’ music.
“When Merle and I started out, we called our music ‘traditional-plus,’ meaning the traditional music of the Appalachian region, plus whatever other styles we were in the mood to play,” Doc had said.
Now in its 31st year, MerleFest is a fundraiser for the Wilkes Community College Foundation, funding scholarships, capital projects and educational needs.
Roots music — plus
“MerleFest is known for its unique mix of traditional, roots-oriented music from the Appalachian region, including bluegrass and old-time music, Americana, blues, country, Celtic, Cajun, cowboy, zydeco and rock,” said Steve Johnson, MerleFest artist relations manager.
In addition, MerleFest includes performances from Balsam Range with the Atlanta Pops Orchestra Ensemble, Peter Rowan, the Krueger Brothers, Rob Ikes and Trey Hensley, David Holt and Josh Goforth, Bryan Sutton, Jim Lauderdale, Donna the Buffalo and many more.
A popular part of the festival is the Midnight Jam, known for its impromptu collaborations of superstar musicians, which will start at 10:30 p.m. Saturday, April 28 and go past midnight.
Beyond great music, there is plenty to do, with nature walks, acoustic kids showcases, pickers’ areas, backstage tours, an emerging artist competition and craft vendors.
Top bluegrass and roots bands are expanding the lines of the genres these days, and music fans don’t have to look far to find this in Haywood County’s Grammy and IBMA award-winning Balsam Range.
“I hear it all the time — people saying, ‘I never thought I’d like bluegrass’ — only to discover bluegrass in a whole new light with a band like Balsam Range,” said Buddy Melton, Balsam Range lead vocalist and fiddle player.
On the Doc Watson stage April 27, Balsam Range will perform songs from the soon-to-be-released CD “Mountain Overture,” recorded with the Atlanta Pops Orchestral Ensemble.
“Music is all intertwined and interconnected — we’re big fans of the arts in general,” Melton said. “Performing with the Atlanta Pops is part of our outreach to grow as a band and to grow new fans.”
Balsam Range’s set will include some of the band’s best-known music with the “big, full sound” of the orchestra. Melton said that sometimes people come to hear the orchestra and wind-up becoming bluegrass fans — and vice versa.
Some of the highlights
More than 90 acts are scheduled to perform at MerleFest; here are a few of the highlights:
Thursday, April 26
• Kris Kristofferson — Kristofferson has performed concerts all over the world and achieved recognition as a country songwriter. He’s a Golden Globe award-winner for Best Actor and a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
• The Mavericks — With a blend of Cuban grooves and country, the band delights audiences with their own “genre-defying” style.
Friday, April 27
• Jamey Johnson — Johnson is the real deal in country music, not only in his vocals but also in writing songs for George Strait, Trace Adkins and more.
• Balsam Range and the Atlanta Pops Orchestra Ensemble — Balsam Range won Album of the Year at the 2017 International Bluegrass Association awards. Hear the band expand the boundaries of bluegrass during a performance with the Atlanta Pops Orchestra Ensemble.
Saturday, April 28
• Rhiannon Giddens — Multi-talented singer/songwriter Rhiannon Giddens plays banjo and fiddle, and is known for her “Kill a Word” duet with country star Eric Church. She has a recurring role on the revived television drama Nashville.
• Jerry Douglas and Tommy Emmanuel — Douglas and Emmanuel perform live together for the first time at MerleFest. Hear an acoustic performance that blends country, bluegrass, jazz and rock.
• Sam Bush Band — This year marks Bush’s 31st performance at MerleFest, making him one of five acts to have performed in all 31 MerleFests. Bush is known as ‘roots royalty’ and ‘father of newgrass.’
Sunday, April 29
• Steep Canyon Rangers and Friends with special guest Steve Martin — The Brevard Grammy Award-winning sextet is known for infusing bluegrass with pop, country and folk-rock. In addition to their own performances, the Rangers collaborate regularly with actor/banjo player/comedian Steve Martin. See them perform with Martin at MerleFest.
• We Banjo 3 — Noted as one of the best Irish acts in recent years, the multi-award-winning We Banjo 3 combines super-group credentials with the power of fiddle, guitar, mandolin and banjo.
Tickets and information
Visit www.MerleFest.org/lineup for the complete 2018 lineup.
Tickets for the festival may be purchased at www.MerleFest.org or by calling 1-800-343-7857 (ticket categories: reserved or general admission 3 or 4-day, single day tickets, parking passes and Midnight Jam tickets). Camping is available at River’s Edge campground.