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MerleFest Day 4: fest closes with everything from hymns to honky tonk

Wilkes Community College, WIlkesboro, N.C., April 26, 2015

Reviewed by Kevin Oliver

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For the final day of MerleFest 2015, the programming ran from gospel music in the morning to the barroom honky-tonk of Dwight Yoakam's closing set. That wide range is what makes the festival such a success as it carries on the "traditional plus" design of the late Doc Watson.

With the Avett Brothers in town for their Saturday night set, expectations were high that they would appear for the Jim Avett Family Gospel Hour. Fans were not disappointed, though they were kept waiting until the final two songs for Scott and Seth Avett to join their dad on a pair of gospel tunes including a set-closing rendition of "Down By the Riverside." Even without the famous sons the elder Avett was a familial presence, joking with the crowd and playing gospel-tinged songs from the likes of Hank Williams and Townes Van Zandt as well as familiar hymns. Avett daughter Bonnie Rini sang along throughout the set, adding a nice counterpoint to Jim's more down-home style.

The Locust Honey String Band were a highlight of the Traditional Tent on Sunday morning, bringing their old-time string music style to bear on a set of originals and some appropriate traditional fare.

On the Watson Stage, the crowds gathered despite the cool wet weather for Robert Earl Keen's early afternoon set with a band geared to his latest album Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions. Combining longtime band members such as guitarist Rich Brotherton with more acoustic-oriented players such as Kym Warner of the Greencards on mandolin, Keen's set list delved into both the new bluegrass material and classics "Gringo Honeymoon" and "The Road Goes On Forever", most of which benefited greatly from the less electric setup. Peter Rowan made yet another cameo appearance to sing with Keen on "99 years for One Dark Day," reprising his role on the new album.

Dwight Yoakam closed out the afternoon and MerleFest with a blistering set of classic Bakersfield style honky-tonk that even he acknowledged from the stage at one point wasn't what one might typically hear at the festival, but he was obviously tickled to be playing there anyway. Yoakam and band transitioned from song to song so quickly he only had time for a couple of asides throughout the set; he has enough hits that perhaps he was trying to fit more of them into the show. As it was, they got to a bunch of them, including the opening salvo of "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke" and "Always Late (With Your Kisses)". He drew from throughout his career, from his debut album's "It Won't Hurt" to several cuts from his brand new hit release Second Hand Heart. It was a testament to his wide appeal even with the MerleFest crowd that many in the audience stuck it out to the very end, savoring the last moments of the four-day festival as long as they could.