MerleFest 2021: Back in the Saddle
Photo by Michael Freas
Clearly, the artists and crowds at MerleFest were more than ready for this year’s event. Usually held the last week in April, last year’s cancellation and the rescheduling this year for September left regulars wanting more of the beautiful location in the foothills of North Carolina. Over the years the lineup has become more mainstream; initially, when Doc Watson began it in honor of his son Merle, it was bluegrass-centric, but, reflecting Doc’s broad scope of music appreciation, he added blues players, Cajun, and old-time music, and more recently country-oriented acts. Since his death in 2012 at the age of 89, the festival has become even more mainstream. For example, some of this year’s headliners were the Tedeschi-Trucks Band, Melissa Etheridge, Margo Price, and Sturgill Simpson.
Set on the campus of Wilkes Community College, it’s become a major festival, drawing around 50,000 people over four days of music. This year’s event emphasized safety; all attendees had to present vaccination cards or evidence of a recent negative test to enter, and masks were required at all indoor and tent-related events, including shuttles.
The first day including some of the traditional MerleFest opening acts: the live-wire Irish-oriented music of Scythian, the historical blues player Roy Book Binder, Peter Rowan with the Free Mexican Air Force (Los Texmaniacs), and local band the Banknotes. Popular traditional bluegrass group The Po’ Rambling Boys set the stage for alt-country heavy hitters Margo Price and Sturgill Simpson. Price, a Grammy-nominated fixture of Nashville who exploded on the scene after years of effort, started her set with a few of her older songs but became more fiery as the set progressed. High points were her hit “Hurtin’ (On The Bottle),” “Since You Put Me Down,” a Whiskey River medley, and a blazing cover of Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good.”
The opening day headliner was Simpson, who has made a mid-career change for the last several albums. Many were surprised when the alt-county Grammy-winning standout got some of the best bluegrass musicians in Nashville together in 2020 to record two albums of his own catalog reinterpreted as bluegrass songs. It soared to the top of the bluegrass charts, which was not surprising given the supporting cast, all well-known artists, including multi-instrumentalist Tim O’Brien, mandolinist Sierra Hull, banjo player Scott Vestal, the fiddle master Stuart Duncan, guitarist Mark Howard, and bassist Mike Bub. Hull and Vestal weren’t around for this set, but Mark Howard’s great guitar picking and Elmer Burchett’s banjo picked up any slack.
Their set was solid, with Simpson’s Waylon Jennings-like vocals matched perfectly with the great musicianship. They did two songs from his most recent album, The Ballad of Dood and Juanita. “Juanita” was a showstopper (Willie Nelson sang it with Simpson on the album), and they they did an a cappella version of his tribute to his dog, “Sam.”
Day two started at the Watson Stage with Iron Horse, a group from Muscle Shoals (not considered a bluegrass hotbed) that I’ve been listening to for years but never seen. They are unique, playing great straight-ahead original bluegrass with fine harmonies, but they have made their mark by covering bands that nobody else has even considered in bluegrass. Starting with an entire album of Metallica covers, they moved to Guns ‘n Roses, Ozzy Osbourne, and other metal bands. One of their most popular covers, though, is Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” which they used to close their set.
Sierra Farrell was up next on the Watson Stage, and I was really looking forward to seeing her in person. A number of friends and music writers have raved about her music, but seeing her live really explained the reason that she is one of the fastest rising stars in Americana. Doing a bunch of songs from her last album, Long Time Coming, her unique approach to rhythm and tempo changes and soaring vocals kept the audience’s attention. It’s almost impossible to describe her sound, but it sounds “old”… a mix of traditional country with some swing and rhythm and occasional twinges of cowboy music. “The Sea” is decidedly Django-based, and the pair of original waltzes she did (“West Virginia Waltz” and “Whispering Waltz”) were beautifully done. Her covers of “older music” are excellent, taking the songs in different directions than ever imagined; she covered “Silver Dollar” and “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” with great respect and completely unique arrangements. She already is a major player, and if you haven’t seen or listened to her yet, you should.
One of my most highly anticipated performances was by The HercuLeons. I’ve been a John Cowan fan since his early days with the New Grass Revival, his solo albums, and his current gig as the bassist for the Doobie Brothers. He has one of the most amazing voices in any genre, and age hasn’t taken it away. His partner in this endeavor is Andrea Zonn, an amazing singer/violinist in her own right; Zonn has toured with Vince Gill, with Lyle Lovett, and with James Taylor for many years. Along with some great songs from both of them, including Zonn’s moving song “Rise,” they did a beautiful cover of Gregory Porter’s “Take Me to the Alley” and threw in two songs that made John Cowan a legend in the Newgrass genre — “Good Woman’s Love” and “Calling Baton Rouge” — that had the crowd on their feet.
Shawn Colvin did an afternoon set at the Hillside Stage, her first appearance at Merlefest. I last saw her a few years ago at Americanafest, and I’ve loved her music for thirty years or so. She always takes me to other more innocent times. Along with her hit “Sunny Came Home,” she did a few of my favorite covers, including Tom Waits’ “Ol’ 55,” and her own wonderful “If I Was Brave.”
Country stalwart LeAnn Rimes was a bundle of energy and emotion on the Watson Stage. She had played only a few shows recently, and she was so happy to be able to tour that she cried sometime during every show, and this was no exception. After the crowd went wild over her older song “Blue,” she teared up. She alternated her mastery of torch songs with uptempo standouts, dancing barefoot across the stage. Standouts were a heartfelt version of “How Can I Live” and “Can’t Fight the Moonlight” from the movie Coyote Ugly.
The Tedeschi-Trucks Band closed out the night with a tremendous set that had the audience up and cheering. Starting off with some slower songs (a great cover of Derek and the Dominoes’ “Bell Bottom Blues”), they picked things up with “Gin House Blues” and ran through “Whiskey Legs,” “Shame,” and Tedeschi’s “The Feeling Music Brings.”
Saturday I set out for the Hillside Stage to catch the Cleverlys. If you’ve never seen or heard of them, I’ll just say that there is just no real description for one of their shows. Don’t care what kind of mood you’re in, you will laugh at one of their sets. The New York Times wrote, “If Earl Scruggs, Dolly Parton, and Spinal Tap spawned a litter of puppies, it would be the Cleverlys.” I’d probably add Homer and Jethro and the early Dillards to that pedigree. Staying in their Arkansas alter egos, they cover everything from Psy’s “Gangnam Style” to the Zombie’s “She’s Not There;” it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that these are great pickers. You should not miss a chance to see them.
Next up was Brittany Spencer, her first MerleFest appearance. She’s quite a story; a Baltimore native trained in classical Italian arias, she fell in love with country music after bing inspired by Carrie Underwood and especially The Dixie Chicks. She moved to Nashville in 2013 and has been named as one of CMA’s Next Women of Country list. Her forthright songs, most from her album Compassion, are presented with beautiful airy vocals, but she can provide a hard-core gospel edge. In tribute to her influences, she did a nice cover of the Chicks’ cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide”.
I’ve seen Tommy Emmanuel a bunch of times, and he never fails to wow an audience. Transportation problems led to a shuffling of his schedule, and his Watson Stage set was pretty abbreviated (no Beatles/Classical Gas medley) but his versions of “Windy and Warm,” “Limehouse Blues,” and “Cannonball Rag” had people shaking their heads.
Sam Bush has been at every MerleFest since the beginning and reflected back to the early days when the festival consisted of a few friends that really loved Doc and Merle. Scott Vestal’s fifteen years with Bush ended last year, and Wes Corbett has stepped right in to some large shoes to fill. The band was, as usual, running hot all night, and the crowd ate it up. Playing a goodly number of New Grass Revival numbers (“Crooked Smile,” “When the Storm is Over,” and the first cut on their first album in 1972, “Great Balls of Fire”), they added some traditional songs (“Shady Grove” and “Little Girl of Mine in Tennessee”) and several John Hartford songs (including “In Tall Buildings”). Hopes for a Bush/John Cowan reunion didn’t pan out, but it was a great set perfect for the moment… an emotional return to live music as MerleFest.
Shovels and Rope took the stage after Bush. A high-powered Charleston-based duo, they suit the genre “Americana” very well, since their catalog ranges from folk to rock to country. Switching off on keyboards, drums, and acoustic and electric guitars, they play off each other as if they were married… which of course they are. They play some complex arrangements and never miss a beat. Starting off with “Hail Hail,” they ran through a bluesy-oriented set that led to a few standing ovations. “Birmingham,” their personal story of how they got started in “the business,” is a crowd favorite. After a beautiful version of “C’mon Utah!” they added “I’m Coming Out” and “Missionary Ridge” to an expansive set.
Sunday I was looking forward to seeing Charley Crockett, a fast-rising Americana/county artist. Described as “neo-country” by some, he’s like a cross between a young Dwight Yoakum and Marty Robbins. His music is pretty straightforward: it’s fifties and sixties country-western with an emphasis on the “western.” His music isn’t exactly resonating with the the current “bro-country” musically superficial Nashville industry as he sang in the title cut of his new album “Music City USA”: “I shouldn’t have come here in the first place, cause folks in here don’t like my kind.” He also notes he doesn’t look like many popular stars; it’s not his western outfits, sunglasses, and cowboy hat but the fact that his ancestry includes black, Cajun, Creole, and Jewish forebears. He once commented, “I don’t look like what a traditional country audience expects or maybe wants to see.” But his music speaks for itself, as does his band, with excellent pedal steel that anchors many of the songs, fine keyboard playing with the occasional trumpet echo, and classic Texas electric guitar, supported a great set of original and cover songs. Opening with “Run Horse Run,” he ran through “Midnight Run,” and “Hard Times,” closing with “Music City,” Jamestown,” and “Paint It Blue.” Crockett’s deep baritone, at times almost Cash-like, is strong and unwavering. He’s a late-blooming phenomenon and worth seeing if you get the chance.
Crockett was followed on the Watson stage by the king of Gulf coast R&B swamp music, the one and only Shinyribs, Kevin Russell’s alter ego. One of his shows is like if Motown moved to the Texas coast. Horn players, three great backup singers, choreographed dance moves that seem remarkable for someone of Shiny’s level of… let’s say, “maturity”… always draws loud cheers. An older bearded white dude with Otis Redding sensibilities is not something you see every day. I’ll always make sure I catch his show.
There were many performances I had to miss… from Mavis Staples to Melissa Etheridge, but the rescheduled MerleFest was a great potpourri of musical genres, from rural blues to hard-core rock, with bluegrass and country thrown in. The crowds and artists were thrilled to be back to listening to and making live music again, and it made for a great festival. And it won’t require a long wait for the next one, either, as it’s currently scheduled for April 2022.