THROUGH THE LENS: Exciting Roots Artists Not to Miss at MerleFest 2022
We Banjo 3 - MerleFest 2018 - Photo by Amos Perrine
It is good to have MerleFest back in its normal time slot; mid-spring in North Carolina is a lovely time of the year. With it comes this column’s recommendations on artists who are making their MerleFest debuts and thus may not be familiar to the usual MerleFest-goer. However, as per reasons set forth below, there are two notable exceptions, Alison Brown and We Banjo 3. You may know them, but I think you’ll find them extra exciting this year.
MerleFest is a four-day festival that starts this Thursday in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, honoring the “traditional plus” music favored by festival namesake Merle Watson and his father, Doc Watson. In contrast to last year’s strict COVID-19 precautions, proof of vaccination or negative COVID tests are not required this year. Masks are optional, except on all festival shuttle buses and transportation and the artist secured backstage area, where they are required. You can read the full list of rules and recommendations here.
As some performers have canceled, or their set times have changed, attendees should download the MerleFest app (for iPhone or Android) and check it consistently for any changes. For your pre-fest convenience, the artists highlighted below are in chronological order with links to their respective schedules. You can find the full lineup and schedule on MerleFest’s website.
Speaking of schedules, Saturday is an overloaded one, but with just a little ingenuity you can catch everything on this list. Please note that as Joey J. Saye is the only artist below who will be performing on more than one day, his schedule is listed under his first day, Friday.
Jake Blount: A 2020 recipient of the Steve Martin Banjo Prize and two-time winner at the prestigious Appalachian String Band Music Festival in West Virginia, Blount delves into the contributions African Americans have made to country, bluegrass, and folk music. (12:15-1 p.m. at Creekside Stage; 2-2:45 p.m. at Traditional Stage)
Joey J. Saye: Saye was the first of his Liberian family born in the United States. He incorporates West African music and country music into his own unique style of the blues. (Friday 12:15-12:45 p.m. at Cabin Stage; Saturday 3:05-3:50 p.m. at Austin Stage at Mayes Pit; Sunday 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. at Americana Stage)
Alison Brown: Banjo master Brown needs no introduction, but the delightful surprise here is who’s going to be in her band: the duo O’Connor Lee (Forrest O’Connor and Kate Lee). They are members of Forrest’s father’s group, The Mark O’Connor Band, whose album Coming Home won a Grammy in 2017. With the duo’s debut album scheduled for later this year, these sets are going to be a real treat. (12:45-1:30 p.m. at Walker Center Stage; 2:45-3:30 p.m. at Hillside Stage)
Rissi Palmer: Palmer uses her powerful delivery to fuse country music with R&B, a sound she calls Southern Soul. (2-2:45 p.m. at Americana Stage; 6:15-6:45 p.m. at Cabin Stage)
We Banjo 3: You may think you know this Irish band, but their online performances during the pandemic have demonstrated a dramatic shift in their songwriting. Some call them a great Irish-Americana band, I say you will not see or hear a better band all weekend. (1:30-2:30 p.m. at Creekside Stage; 5:15-6:15 p.m. at Watson Stage; 10-11:30 p.m. at the Dance Tent)
Caleb Caudle: Caudle has a dusty, rocking soul sound that would make Johnny Cash proud. (11:15 a.m.-noon at Cabin Stage; 3-3:45 p.m. at Creekside Stage; 10:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m., part of the Late Night Jam at Walker Center Stage)
Kaia Kater: Drawing on musical influences from Canada, the Caribbean, and Appalachia, Kater weaves them together in a way that is referential, impressionistic, and exciting. (1:15- 2 p.m. at Watson Stage; 4:30-5:15 p.m. at Americana Stage; 10:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m., part of the Late Night Jam at Walker Center Stage)
Sister Sadie: Sister Sadie became the first all-female group to be awarded Vocal Group of the Year at the 2019 International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Awards. In 2020, they repeated that award and took home the Entertainer of the Year Award as well. (1:30-2:30 p.m. at Creekside Stage; 2:30-3:15 p.m. at Watson Stage; 4:30-5:15 p.m. at Walker Center Stage)
The Blue Ridge Girls: As their name implies, this trio, featuring Martha Spencer, invokes a timeless take on traditional mountain music, featuring a variety of old-time, bluegrass, and country songs, heavy on the fiddle, banjo, and accent. (1:45-2 p.m. at Plaza Stage)
Allison Russell: Like Nina Simone and Edith Piaf, two shamanistic practitioners who turned their faces into the storm and roared back with dignity and hope, Russell is a force to be reckoned with. She was an ND Spotlight Artist last year, and ND writers and staff chose her debut solo album, Outside Child, as the best roots music album of 2021. Expect to be moved as never before. (8:45-9:30 p.m. at Cabin Stage)
Arlo McKinley: McKinley is deeply rooted in street soul, country, punk, and gospel and draws on personal stories set against the backdrop of his hometown of Cincinnati. (3:15-4 p.m. at Americana Stage; 6:45-7:15 p.m. at Cabin Stage)
Colin Hay: Hay has not rested on his Men at Work laurels; this Australian legend is a walking, talking history book of modern popular music, including his own. He’s also an integral member of Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band. (5:45-6:45 p.m. at Watson Stage)
Shannon McNally: Those who have followed McNally’s 20-year career can attest that she is the essence of Americana blues. Expect songs from her latest album, The Waylon Sessions (a tribute to Waylon Jennings, from a woman’s perspective), along with a fabulous catalog of originals. (11:30-12:15 p.m at Watson Stage; 2:15-3 p.m. at Americana Stage)
The Lee Boys: The Lee Boys add funk into the sacred steel tradition. MerleFest Sunday will never be the same again. (12:30-1:30 p.m. at Creekside Stage)
Click on any photo below to view the gallery as a full-size slide show.