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Tucker, McCourys close out Merlefest in style

Wilkesboro Community College, Wilkesboro, N.C., April 30, 2023

Reviewed by Kevin Oliver

When headliner Tanya Tucker, just in town for the day, inquired of the MerleFest crowd on Sunday afternoon how much longer the festival was going on, she apparently came to the realization on stage that she was the last set not only for Sunday, but the whole festival this year.

"We ought to just stay here all week and keep playing music," she remarked, obviously having a pretty good time doing just that. The crowd responded with half-hearted approval, loving the idea, but deep in the mud from a long, rainy four days just not quite ready to hang around any more, apparently. The day offered up cloudy skies, but no more bad weather, allowing for some great sets to close out this 35th edition of MerleFest.

Bella White, a young Canadian country singer, brought her fiery red hair and an equally on fire band to the Cabin stage for a brief, but compelling performance. "All I write is sad songs," she commented at one point, introducing yet another tear-jerker. Those less than sunny tunes are couched in some nicely twangy country arrangements, however, and White showed her roots are in the right place with covers of the bluegrass gospel number "Workin' On A Building" and a Guy Clark classic, "Dublin Blues."

The late cancellation from Nickel Creek a day into the festival allowed for an extra special appearance to fill the slot on Sunday, as the Travelin' McCourys were enlisted. Not content to just phone in a standard festival set, however, the brothers McCoury brought their dad, Del McCoury, along for the ride and added a couple more special guests. The highlight of the band's own numbers was a song they announced as their next upcoming single release, a cover of The Waterboys' "Whole of the Moon," which managed to retain the original's sweeping texture, but place it firmly in a contemporary bluegrass setting.

Once Del McCoury joined them, the fun started and the songs were coming fast and loose. An audience member's yelled request prompted a take of the Richard Thompson song that the Del McCoury Band recorded a while back, "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," and then they called up Jim Lauderdale to sing and play a rowdy "Slewfoot." Sam Bush followed and propelled the band through a fast-paced "Roll On Buddy, Roll On." Peter Rowan soon stepped up to join Bush and Del on a vocal harmony trio version of Bill Monroe's "Sitting Alone in the Moonlight."

After Lauderdale played a full set of his own from the Cabin stage, Tucker closed out the evening with a set that highlighted all the reasons she's being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame this year.

Tucker started her portion of the afternoon by dipping back into the songs that got her started as a teenage country star – "What's Your Mama's Name" and "Would You Lay With Me (In a Field Of Stone)."

Tucker has had a long and varied career, of course, over the past 50 years. She touched on her Texas past with "San Antonio Stroll," and revisited one of her later hits in "Strong Enough To Bend," telling stories about her friendships with Merle Haggard and George Jones as well as her own storied past and her manager/father.

Most notable, however, was the tune she chose to play from her 2019 album that was done with current critical and popular favorite Brandi Carlisle along with Shooter Jennings, "The Wheels of Laredo." Tucker said she's already readying a follow-up release coming in June, so the new Hall of Famer is nowhere near resting on her new laurels. She did, however, leave the crowd with the one song everyone came to hear: her first really big hit, "Delta Dawn," and thanked the audience and all her fans for getting her where she is today.

©Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •
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