MerleFest, the "traditional-plus" festival in Wilkesboro, entered its second year without its patriarch, Doc Watson, this year. Though organizers continue to push and uphold what Watson started, he was not completely missing from this festival's second day—his voice could be heard throughout the festival grounds, his legacy in plain sight. At various stages between bands and at vendor booths luring customers, Watson recordings played throughout the day.
Despite the somewhat foreboding weather forecast, the grounds of Wilkes County Community College were packed for the North Carolina ritual. In keeping with the festival's Friday tradition, grade school students from throughout the county visited, hearing the musical heritage that runs deep in their area. MerleFest publicist Judy McDonough told me about the years when Watson's voice would put the children completely under his spell as he flat-picked his way through one song after another.
My own day started with the latest band formation of the legendary Peter Rowan, this time with his "Twang and Groove" project. He's played every MerleFest. With him this time was Yungchen Lhamo, a mesmerizing Tibetan singer who added soaring vocals to Rowan's songs. At one point, in place of an instrumental break, Lhamo stepped forward and harmonized with Rowan in a unique fashion—one of my favorite moments in all my years attending MerleFest.
Todd Snider followed on the Hillside stage, making his own MerleFest debut. Snider's style of storytelling fit perfectly; each pun and every witty remark were met with laughter. The South Carolina Broadcasters then packed the Traditional stage, bringing the crowd to their feet as they closed out with the Carter Family tune "Diamonds in the Rough." On the Americana stage, Mandolin Orange made their own first MerleFest appearance, this time in three-piece form. They stunned when they shifted from their "Cavalry" into the Doc Watson classic, "The Train That Carried My Girl From Town." Emily Frantz's fiddle replaced Watson's usual guitar breaks in the song, and her fast tempo fit well.
I ended my night at the Watson stage with Tim O'Brien and Darrell Scott. The duo performed a handful of standout covers—"Maggie's Farm", "White Freight Liner Blues," "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning." Many filed out just as recent Grand Ole Opry inductees and cocktail-napkin songwriters Old Crow Medicine Show began their headlining set. I did the same after a handful of songs, which all lyrically served as a bingo of Appalachian buzzwords. The crowd, at least, enjoyed the excuse to exit their lawn chairs and continue dancing into the deep evening.
Below, find a few clips from Friday at MerleFest, including a special performance by Peter Rowan, Mandolin Orange and Yungchen Lhamo, high atop the hillside overlooking the festival grounds.
Peter Rowan & Yungchen Lhamo & Mandolin Orange, "I'm Calling You"
South Carolina Broadcasters, "Diamonds in the Rough"
Todd Snider, "D.B. Cooper"
Peter Rowan & Mandolin Orange, "Stone Wall (Around My Heart)"