MerleFest, presented by Window World, has officially come to a close, but not without a number of unforgettable collaborations, spontaneous sit-ins, and world-class performances at the much anticipated return of North Carolina’s beloved festival. Tedeschi Trucks Band, Sturgill Simpson, and Mavis Staples all brought extra MerleFest energy to the Watson Stage over the course of the weekend. MerleFest, held on the campus of Wilkes Community College, is the primary fundraiser for the WCC Foundation, which funds scholarships, capital projects, and other educational needs.
“Once again I want to thank all of our MerleFest family—artists, volunteers, staff, and fans—for their patience and support as we worked together to put on a safe and enjoyable festival that spotlighted the very best in roots-plus music,” says Festival Director Ted Hagaman. “We’ve had a wonderful weekend and we look forward to seeing everyone’s smiling faces again in seven short months when MerleFest returns to its usual April weekend in 2022.”
The following are just a few of the weekend’s highlights.
Thursday: Thursday saw the much anticipated kickoff of a twice-postponed MerleFest by the raucous Po’ Ramblin’ Boys set on the Watson Stage. Peter Rowan was joined by Los Texmaniacs as Peter Rowan’s Free Mexican Airforce for a crossover set for the ages. Closing out the night on the Watson Stage were arguably the reigning queen and king of outlaw country, Margo Price and Sturgill Simpson. Simpson performed with his new bluegrass band which consisted of his longtime drummer Miles Miller, Tim O’Brien, Stuart Duncan, Mike Bub, Mark Howard, and Elmer Burchett. Over the course of ninety minutes, Simpson revisited his wildly popular catalog of songs in this new string band format much to the delight of day one festival-goers.
Friday: With programming on all twelve of MerleFest’s diverse stages, Friday found the festival firing on all cylinders. Highlights included a genre-melding set from Joe Troop of Che Apalache, Sierra Ferrell’s much talked about Watson Stage Merlefest debut, a Scythian-fueled late night party at the Dance Stage, and a grand return of Derek Trucks’ and Susan Tedeschi’s Tedeschi Trucks Band—playing only their second show back in the saddle with the full twelve-piece band. A hair-raising version of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “I Pity The Fool” was followed by TTB classic “Midnight In Harlem” to close out Friday’s main-stage programming to much delight from fans, new and old.
Friday also saw the announcement of MerleFest’s 2020 & 2021 Chris Austin Songwriting Contest winners (full list below) as well as an emotional farewell to the long-running contest itself. After nearly 30 years, CASC is coming to a close, and long-time contest coordinator and host, Jim Lauderdale, was honored Saturday for his over twenty years of shared expertise, enthusiasm, and engagement.
2020 MerleFest’s Chris Austin Songwriting Contest
First Place Winners
Mark Atkinson (Charleston, W.Va.) – “Home”
Sarah Jane Nelson (Nashville, Tenn.), Kenny Foster (Nashville, Tenn.) – “Sins of the Father”
Aaron Burdett (Saluda, N.C.) – “Rockefeller”
Jomo Edwards (Austin, Texas) – “You Need It”
2021 MerleFest’s Chris Austin Songwriting Contest
First Place Winners
Daniel Davis (Bristol, Va.) – “Dear Lord”
Ian Meadows (Higganum, Conn.), Dustin Meadows (Old Saybrook, Conn.) – “Trouble”
Andrew Small (Floyd, Va.) – “Yesterday’s Blues”
Shay Martin Lovette (Boone, N.C.) – “For Rose Marie”
Saturday: The Waybacks delighted music fans by honoring the late great John Prine, playing his self-titled album from front to back. MerleFest favorite Sam Bush joined the band, as did Jim Lauderdale and members of Shinyribs and Barefoot Movement. Watson Stage headliners Shovels & Rope had fans on their feet, dancing into the night with their own blend of low country Americana. Afterward, Shinyribs hosted the annual Late Night Jam. Themed “Gulf Breeze: Songs of the Third Coast,” the after-hours concert featured a rotating cast of all-star artists, entertaining music fans into the wee hours of Sunday morning.
Sunday: The morning kicked off with a special performance from the Band Contest Winner, Into The Fog. Tupelo, Mississippi-based Paul Thorn took music fans to church with MerleFest’s annual Gospel Hour at the Creekside Stage. Midday, Oh Boy Records recording artist Kelsey Waldon sang her truth on the Cabin Stage and Mavis Staples rocked the Watson Stage with her classic mix of gospel and rock ‘n roll. Speaking of rock ‘n roll, rock royalty Melissa Etheridge closed the festival and brought music fans to their feet for the final set of the weekend.
MerleFest will return to its usual spring weekend in 2022, April 28 to May 1. For more information, please visit merlefest.org. Photos from this weekend can be found here.