The annual festival season kicked off last weekend with what is one of the most the most family-friendly events in the nation, the tobacco- and alcohol-free MerleFest.
The event, founded by friends of guitar legend Doc Watson to honor his son Merle, attracted 76,000 fans to the campus of Wilkes Community College, in the Appalachian foothills of western North Carolina. Proceeds from the event benefit the WCC Endowment Corporation, funding scholarships, capital projects, and other educational needs.
More than 130 artists played on 13 stages, according to Ted Hagaman, festival director. The music at the event is primarily bluegrass, country, blues, and Americana. Headliners this year included Alan Jackson, Merle Haggard, Ricky Skaggs, and a band that got its start busking at MerleFest: Old Crow Medicine Show.
One particularly interesting aspect of MerleFest is a musical outreach program that took place on Thursday, the event’s first day. More than 40 of the artists at MerleFest performed for nearly 10,000 children at local schools.
Gospel music has a prominent place at MerleFest, with some bands performing gospel almost exclusively, and others mixing traditional gospel into their sets. Among the more gospel-oriented highlights of this year’s MerleFest:
Jim Avett. The father of the famous Avett Brothers leads a MerleFest tradition: an old-fashioned Sunday morning gospel sing. If you must miss church for MerleFest, this is not a bad excuse.
The Cockman Family. Lightning fast licks, tight family harmonies, and now three generations of performers make up this bluegrass gospel band. In 2011, the family received the North Carolina Community Traditions Award from the N.C. Folklore Society.
Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder. Ricky Skaggs is about as close as you get to a superstar at a roots festival such as MerleFest, so it’s refreshing that he talks openly about his faith in his music and both on and off stage.
Other bands that were just plain fun:
Mandolin Orange. A bluegrass version of The Civil Wars, with sometimes strange and often interesting references to love, sin, and God.
Mountain Feist. The four young men from Asheville who make up Mountain Feist claim 75 years of combined playing experience, though they don’t look old enough for that. But they are pros on stage who are generating buzz in the bluegrass world on the strength of their live sets and their 2013 album, Bittersweet and Roses.
Alan Jackson. Alan Jackson is a true country superstar, and was something of a controversial pick for MerleFest, which doesn’t go for folk who put on airs, as they say in Wilkes County. But in recent years he’s released two gospel albums and a critically acclaimed bluegrass album. In the past, Jackson has had something of a party-boy lifestyle, which led to infidelity and separation from his wife Denise in 1998. But he and Denise reconciled and this year celebrate 35 years of marriage. They have both been open about their Christian faith and credit it with healing their marriage. She’s written two books that have sold well in both the Christian and mainstream markets.
Nu-Blu. Husband and wife Daniel and Carolyn Routh are the core of this four-piece bluegrass band, which lots of folks at MerleFest think could be the next “breakout” band. The Rouths started out in contemporary Christian music, and that sensibility sometimes shows.
Scythian. Brothers Alexander and Danylo Fedoryka blend their Ukrainian roots with Celtic music to create one of the liveliest stage acts at MerleFest. They are crowd favorites who hosted the midnight jam, a MerleFest tradition, late one night, and then played a children’s concert the next day. Daniel, a devout Catholic, said the goal of his music was to “bring glory to God and joy to people” by singing about “the good, the true, and the beautiful.”