THROUGH THE LENS: Molly Tuttle, Steve Poltz, and More Artists Not to Miss at MerleFest 2019
Steve Poltz -- Photo by Boom Baker
This year’s MerleFest looks to be one of bluegrass-meets-Americana. As with last year’s guide I’m highlighting the lower-billed artists. Several of these folks are well known to frequent ND readers, but may be new discoveries for some MerleFest-goers.
As always, I could easily recommend twice as many sets, but I wanted to keep it to a manageable number, eight in all, of folks you absolutely should not miss.
While there are no direct conflicts within these picks, seven are squeezed tightly into Friday and Saturday. For the sake of convenience they are listed in chronological order, with times and stages also being identified. To the best of my recollection, most are first-timers to this festival.
The first thing I noticed on the MerleFest app (download it now) is that early morning and late-night sets are out. Morning sets begin at 11 a.m., and the latest Watson Stage sets begin at 9 p.m.; the last Dance Tent sets begin at 10 p.m. Saturday’s three-hour Midnight Jam at the Walker Center is no more; it’s been replaced by a two-hour Late Night Jam that begins at 10:30 p.m. I, for one, can use the extra sleep.
For the first time, the Autograph Tent schedules are on the app. As of this writing it does look a bit thin, so check the app for updates. Many thanks to those artists who open themselves up to spend some time with their fans.
If you want any MerleFest-related gear, such as shirts, hats, etc., I suggest hitting the MerleFest Mall as soon as you arrive. Many new designs are being offered this year, and as in years past the good stuff sells out quickly. If you snooze, you lose.
Sunset Sessions at the Hillside Stage
These were a hit last year. This year, Friday at 5:45 p.m. features The Black Lillies, and Saturday at 5:30 p.m. it’s The Earls of Leicester. These sets are a viable alternative to the Watson Stage policy of not letting general admission folks into the reserved section after 5 p.m.
The Recommended Eight
Cane Mill Road
This band is made up of young folks, ages 16-21, from nearby Deep Gap, North Carolina, what some would call the heart of bluegrass country. I saw them open for Molly Tuttle some months back and they tore up the stage. Read No Depression bluegrass columnist Ted Lehmann’s 2018 take on the band. Don’t be fooled by their tender years, they are the future of bluegrass.
Friday, 11 a.m., Creekside Stage; 2 p.m., Little Pickers Stage
I cannot wait to hear Cook yell for the first time from a MerleFest stage “Hey y’all!” and do “Sometimes It Takes Balls to Be a Woman.” No one banters like Cook, and no one delivers country/alt-country/Americana with such a wicked, sharp and delightful sense of humor as she does. Perhaps Drivin’ N Cryin’s Kevn Kinney said it best: “Elizabeth is so far ahead and under the radar you better have a supercharger for that fastback if you’re going to catch up! Enjoy the ride … ”
Friday, 12:15 p.m., Americana Stage
Bryan Sutton, who produced their new album, says, “I’m a fan of bands who strive for a balance of being musically unique and individualized, while at the same time working to include time-honored traditions found in this music. This blend is not an easy thing to accomplish. Mile Twelve does this with well-honed and refreshingly honest songwriting, along with powerful playing, singing, and performing. Not only did I have the privilege of producing this album, but I also got a chance to know the band better. I’m impressed with how much they bring out the best in each other.” These young folks from Boston are the best new bluegrass band I have heard in a long time. Here’s ND’s review of their March 2019 album, City on a Hill. It’s a humdinger.
Friday, 1:30 p.m., Creekside Stage
Since this year’s Cayamo cruise (see recap) and the release of his fabulous new album (see Chris Parker’s review for ND), Poltz has been lighting up a lot of stages, including many special guest appearances. His energy of good will and great songs are infectious. He seems to be everywhere. Plus, he co-wrote my favorite song (“Don’t Let Go”) on Molly Tuttle’s new album. I fully expect him to guest on a lot of artists’ sets, especially on Saturday, as his only scheduled performance that day is the Late Night Jam. I also look for him to be part of the Waybacks’ Hillside Album Hour, where I have no doubt he’ll steal the show.
Friday, 3:20 p.m., Cabin Stage; 5:45 p.m., Traditional Stage
Saturday, 10:30 p.m., Late Night Jam, Walker Center
Dirk Powell Band
Powell is a musician, writer, and producer living in Southwest Louisiana. His roots in Kentucky and his commitment to Creole and Cajun culture have fused with early classical training to form an artistic palette and vision that are unique. In addition to his own performances, he has toured with Eric Clapton, Joan Baez, Rhiannon Giddens, Linda Ronstadt, Jack White, and Loretta Lynn. He’s not only produced Giddens’ last two projects, but he also is simpatico enough to have brought even a deeper meaning to her already substantial work. Check out this 2004 article from ND’s archives on him.
Saturday. 11:15 a.m., Traditional Stage; 2 p.m., Walker Center
The Brother Brothers
Identical twins David and Adam Moss honor contemporary aches with the nostalgic tenderness of another time on their 2018 debut album, Some People I Know. They beautifully blend guitar, cello, and five-string fiddle with the sort of two-part harmonies only brothers can carry. Their understated stage presence and warm heartfelt nature have earned them quite a reputation. Get to know them in this feature story; they were ND’s Spotlight Artist of the Month for October 2018.
Saturday, 12:30 p.m., Traditional Stage; 10:30 p.m., Late Night Jam, Walker Center
Be prepared, very prepared to be blown away by this two-time IBMA Guitarist of the Year and last year’s AmericanaFest Instrumentalist of the Year who’s also a sublime vocalist. No doubt she’ll be doing songs from her fabulous new album, When You’re Ready, that EVERYONE has been raving about. She’s also ND’s Spotlight Artist of the Month for April, and all her most recent shows in the UK have been sell-outs. In past seven months there have been seven articles in ND featuring her, here’s the link to just one: https://www.nodepression.com/spotlight-with-full-length-debut-molly-tuttle-proves-shes-ready/.
Saturday, 1:15 p.m., Watson Stage; 2:45, Creekside Stage; 10:30 p.m., Late Night Jam, Walker Center
On her stunning 2018 album, Liberty, the Canadian singer-songwriter says from the outset, “Don’t come any closer to my heart / If you’re afraid of the dark.” The album, her seventh, is a masterwork of heartbreak, revenge, and redemption, not unlike Willie Nelson’s epic, Red Headed Stranger. Here’s ND’s Steve Wosahla’s 2016 interview with Ortega. You’ll be as taken with her as I am.
Sunday, 11 a.m., Hillside Stage