The hillside at Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, is nowhere you would ever go, were it not for the musical lineup that graces the stage at the bottom of the hill once a year for four days. It’s a remarkably steep mess of ants and patchy grass. Lay down a picnic blanket and you’re likely to slide halfway down the hill before your meal is through. But for this long weekend, there’s almost no place you’d rather be, and it’s there, in the three feet between chairs, where we set up a blanket to watch the Alison Brown Quartet and the hourlong set which followed: known in these parts only as the Hillside Album Hour.
Brown’s band was tight and lyrical as they moved through a series of instrumentals from her 2015 album Song of the Banjo. They began with a dreamy turn on the 1974 Orleans hit “Dance with Me.” Under the careful phrasing of Brown’s banjo, the soft rock classic metamorphosed into a languid, dexterous stringband tune. She noted that she made this disc to show off how musical her instrument could be, and this live set attested to its gorgeous musicality. There are few banjoists at work these days who can coax out the instrument’s prettier side, but Brown seems to manage it with little effort.
As her group played through a grey, petering mist, a steady stream of people flowed uphill, bent halfway forward to counter the hill’s steepness. They were there to secure a spot for the set which followed. Fronted by the Waybacks’ James Nash, the crack band assembled for this year’s Album Hour included fellow San Franciscan Nicki Bluhm (of the warm, smooth voice), mandolinist Sam Bush, guitarists John Oates and Jim Lauderdale, and a handful of other Merlefest favorites. The album they unleashed this year was the Eagle’s Greatest Hits, peppering it with tributes to Merle Haggard, BB King, and other artists who have passed from us in the last year or so. Nash noted that they wanted to choose an album with which everyone would want to sing along, and then mix up the songs enough that singing along would be a challenge. Mission accomplished.
Shortly after that set was complete, the threat of rain grew exponentially. With my wife and toddler in tow, we caught the impeccably talented — and entertaining — Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys. Then we packed it in and drove home to Asheville. By all reports, it was the smart thing to do, considering the toddler (and all the things one must carry with them for a toddler at a festival). The sky opened up and dumped on Merlefest within an hour or two. I didn’t run into anyone who managed to stick it out for Dave Rawlings Machine, but don’t doubt there were plenty of hardcore folks who stayed behind.
Thankfully, the sky was clear as we woke and gathered provisions back home on Sunday morning. We made it back to Merlefest in time to catch the inimitable Tim O’Brien on the mainstage. After seeing Foghorn Stringband look so small and swallowed up by their environs there on Friday, I was struck by how a solo Tim O’Brien seemed to own the big stage, even when he leaned into a solo fiddle tune. The man is a master of the form, and unleashed a handful of selections from his 2015 recording Ponpadour, as well as long-time favorites and newer tunes from his Short Order Sessions — a service he provides on his website, for releasing single songs one at a time.
O’Brien was followed on the Cabin Stage by Portland, Oregon-based powerhouse vocalist Liz Vice. Her set was spirited and memorable, and shifted the vibe beautifully for a mainstage set from Seattle-based Brandi Carlile.
It was Carlile’s first time at Merlefest, and she came ready to blow it out. She opened her set with “Raise Hell,” from her 2012 release Bear Creek, then tore into a collection of tunes pulled mostly from last year’s Firewatcher’s Daughter. Much as I enjoy Carlile’s songwriting, it was her attack of the cover tunes this day, that stole the show. She wrapped her crazy-good vocals around Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California” with a balanced restraint and urgency that made the song feel like something she came up with herself, an hour ago.
The only artist I saw who even mentioned the issue, Carlile excoriated North Carolina’s recent House Bill 2 — the notorious “bathroom bill” that stretches beyond its purport of legislating which bathroom transgendered people can use, and prevents local governments from protecting LGBT people against discrimination, among other overreaches. “North Carolina,” she said, “doesn’t always look like its politics.”
Over email last week, I asked her about her decision to maintain her North Carolina dates at a time when other musicians were canceling left and right. After all, the Grammy-nominated singer is an out lesbian with a wife and child who travel with her on the road.
“I think it’s important for artists to get behind the movements they believe in because art leads change in its purest form. The universal language of music … changes hearts instead of minds,” she said. “As a gay Jesus follower, the place where my need for social justice and my writing usually collide is [when] I feel that someone is being blatantly excluded or overlooked. North Carolina, Mississippi, and the other places following suit [with laws targeting LGBT people] have been heavy on my mind for this reason.”
Then she added: “The one form of dissent I can’t get behind is the one that says ‘shut up and sing’ — that’s bullshit and I won’t do it. “
Indeed, the Merlefest crowd seemed to appreciate her decision to wield her platform in this way. They were on their feet to applaud her comments, which she followed by tearing into “The Story” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” She closed her set alone on the stage, with a gorgeous turn on Emmylou Harris’s “Red Dirt Girl.”
An easy highlight of the day, Carlile was followed by a too-short set from Sierra Hull on the Cabin Stage — a breath of fresh air, with the intricate instrumentalism and self-exploratory songwriting that characterizes her latest effort, this year’s Weighted Mind.
But it was Jason Isbell that so many in this crowd came to see, and the Americana favorite delivered an unbridled set of tunes, mostly from his last two albums: 2013’s Southeastern and last year’s Something More Than Free (both ND community Albums of the Year during their respective years of release).
What can be said in this space about Isbell that hasn’t already? He is an exceptional guitarist and songwriter, whose last couple of albums are easily among the best of his generation. Two nights earlier, John Prine took the same stage, throwing down the gauntlet for truly great songwriting and performance. To close out the festival, Jason Isbell came along and picked it back up.
Indeed, the kind of music Merlefest presents — the kind of music ND exists to lift up — is about connections, about carrying something on that was handed to you. While Isbell’s music — like Carlile’s and O’Briens, and that of every artist on this lineup — speaks on behalf of the people making it, it’s also a testament to the long chain of the American story. It’s a story that’s been told through the lyrical musicality of banjos, the careful tribute to those who have come before, the all-alone fiddling and crowded-room jam sessions, the dexterous virtuosity, and powerful pipes of singers. And, all told, the story this music tells about America looks a whole lot different than its politics.
Til next year, Merlefest.
Alison Brown and John Oates/James Nash photos by Amos Perrine. Jason Isbell photo by Jim Gavenus for Merlefest.