Wednesday, April 26, 2017
– By Kevin Oliver
MerleFest is a roots music fan's dream come true, with four days of bluegrass, folk, Americana, country, traditional and more to take in. 75,000 people are expected to attend this weekend's 30th anniversary edition of the festival, and while there will be crowds for the headliners and well-known acts such as Zac Brown Band, The Avett Brothers, Steep Canyon Rangers, Leftover Salmon and others, it's in the small stages and early time slots where one can discover talented acts that might be new to them. If you're going, here are a handful of lesser-known gems to seek out during the weekend.
Mipso: This is home turf for this North Carolina ensemble, which blends bluegrass and more contemporary songcraft to come up with a hybrid that's accessible to the traditional crowd and their grandkids, too. 2013's "Dark Holler Pop" was produced by Andrew Marlin of Mandolin Orange and it featured members of Chatham County Line and Town Mountain, while 2015's "Reverie" debuted on the top of the Bluegrass Albums chart.
Given that success and the fact that this isn't their first time at MerleFest (guitarist Joseph Terrell won in the 'General' category of the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at the festival in 2014) it might not be accurate to call them "lesser-known" at this point. There will be several chances to see them, including an opening slot for the Midnight Jam on Saturday night as well as sets on the Americana, Hillside, and Cabin stages over the weekend.
Saturday, April 29 @ 4-4:45 PM @ Americana Stage
Saturday, April 29 @ 11:30-11:59 PM @ Walker Center Stage
Sunday, April 30 @ Midnight- 2:30 AM @ Walker Center Stage
Sunday, April 30 @ 12:30-1:15 PM @ Hillside Stage
Sunday, April 30 @ 3:35-4:15 PM @ Cabin Stage
I Draw Slow: This Irish band played MerleFest a couple years back and drew bigger and bigger crowds with each subsequent set they played due to their energetic, heartfelt performances; this year they'll only be there on Saturday, so don't miss your chance to see them.
I Draw Slow balances true Irish traditional sounds with flavors of bluegrass and a little rock 'n' roll; siblings Dave and Louise Holden are songwriting and singing partners who mix American folk into their Celtic storytelling style. They have a brand new album "Turn Your Face to the Sun," released April 21 on Compass Records.
Saturday, April 29 @ 10-10:45 AM @ Watson Stage
Saturday, April 29 @ 11:45 AM-3:45 PM @ Walker Center Stage
Saturday, April 29 @ 4-5 PM @ Traditional Stage
Saturday, April 29 @ 9-10 PM @ Dance Stage
Front Country: San Francisco might seem an unlikely place for a roots-pop outfit to coalesce, but the members of Front Country managed to find common musical ground from disparate origins and the result is a soul-flecked, country-derived acoustic pop style that's original and audacious, never claiming to be authentic but hitting many of the same sweet spots as their more Appalachian-steeped peers. Their new album "Other Love Songs" is out now.
Saturday, April 29 @ 4:15- 5 PM @ Watson Stage
Saturday, April 29 @ 10:30-11:59 PM @ Dance Stage
The Stray Birds: Begun as buskers in Lancaster, Pa. seven years ago, The Stray Birds come to their second MerleFest appearance expanding their original trio to a quartet with the addition of a drummer/percussionist for 2016's "Magic Fire" album. True to their street corner origins, the band still keeps arrangements simple, but that brings a clarity to their vocal harmonies which evokes old-time music while bearing all the flourishes of modern roots music. Maya De Vitry's fiddle/violin adds a mournful, yearning tone while the new percussion option fills out the songs and adds another dynamic layer to an already intense live show.
Friday, April 28 @ 11:30 A.M.-12:15 PM @ Watson Stage
Friday, April 28 @ 1:15-2:15 PM @ Creekside Stage
Friday, April 28 @ 4-4:30 PM @ Autograph Booth
Friday, April 28 @ 5-5:45 PM @ Walker Center Stage
Megan Nash: Canada's answer to Lucinda Williams may be Megan Nash, who sings hauntingly beautiful songs such as "Lampshade" with a throaty voice that's part Lucinda, part Cary Ann Hearst, dipping into a growl as often as it soars to the high notes. For Saturday's Austin Stage set, she'll be joining a group of other songwriters from both sides of the border in what's billed as "Crossing Borders: American and Canadian Artists in the Round." Also appearing during that set: Ken Tizzard, Joe Smothers, Sarah Burton, Chris Jones and Jim Avett
Thursday, April 27 @ 7-7:30 PM @ Autograph Booth
Thursday, April 27 @ 8:15-9 PM @ Cabin Stage
Friday, April 28 @ 1:30-2:15 PM @ Hillside Stage
Friday, April 28 @ 9:45-10 PM @ Austin Stage
Saturday, April 29 @ 3:45- 4:45 PM @ Austin Stage
MerleFest happens this Thursday, April 27-Sunday, April 30 on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, N.C. For tickets, full schedules, lineup, and more visit the official website at www.merlefest.org.