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The Hag closes MerleFest in style

Wilkes Community College, Wilkesboro, N.C., April 27, 2014

Reviewed by Kevin Oliver

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Anticipation was in the air for Merle Haggard, the afternoon headliner on Sunday as MerleFest wound down to its conclusion. But there was plenty of music on tap before that.

A couple of North Carolina acts kicked off the day at the Cabin and Watson stages. Mandolin Orange, an acoustic folk duo from Chapel Hill, played the last set of their first MerleFest trip at an awfully early hour considering they were one of the acts featured at the previous night's Midnight Jam. The group's gentle folk-rock is anchored by the subtle songwriting of Andrew Marlin and accented by the voice of Emily Frantz, a potent combination that was on full display in the bright morning sunshine.

The Overmountain Men, a collaboration between Bob Crawford of the Avett Brothers and longtime Charlotte musician and songwriter David Childers, kicked off the Watson stage and their first-ever set at MerleFest with a bang. The band's tunes are near-rockabilly in energy and enthusiasm, projecting the spirit of early rock 'n' roll with Childers' densely packed spiritually themed lyrics.

The side stages packed in a few more sets before the attention shifted to the day's headliners with Jerry Douglas turning in his usual excellent instrumental performance on the Hillside and Donna The Buffalo extending their late night jams into the afternoon at the Americana stage.

Country music was the order of the afternoon on the Watson stage, with a nice bluegrass set thrown in from Claire Lynch and a final, short Cabin stage performance from the energetic Nora Jane Struthers, whose music mixes old-time, bluegrass and country in the best of ways.

Haggard may have been the draw for the Sunday crowd, but before the Hag accomplished bluegrass duo Dailey & Vincent wowed the audience with their Watson stage set. Bringing along Jimmy Fortune of the Statler Brothers and a full electric country band, there was little of the bluegrass they have made their name with on this afternoon.

Instead the audience was treated to a session of classic country and choice cover tunes delivered in the duo's flawless vocal style. After opening with a white-hot take on the Alabama hit "Mountain Music," they offered up Statler Brothers classics such as "I'll Go To My Grave Loving You," The Eagles "Seven Bridges Road" and "Peaceful Easy Feeling" and even a version of pop singer Philip Phillips' "Home" before closing with a gorgeous, soaring performance of the hymn "How Great Thou Art."

After that inspiring set, Haggard was almost a predictable letdown. His band, including son Ben Haggard on guitar, is about as tight an ensemble as there is in country music, and they supported without being obvious or flashy, just right. Haggard himself came out to a standing ovation after a few opening numbers by his band and proceeded to rip through his impressive catalog of hits from "Silver Wings" to "Are the Good Times Really Over For Good?"

With MerleFest showcasing everything that's great about roots music, it was a nice capping off to the weekend having one of the greats of country music to close things out in style.