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Welcoming the return of MerleFest

Welcoming the return of MerleFest

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Jonathan Henley

Jonathan Henley

Let’s face it, there have been a few things assaulting our mental health lately. With some people losing their sense of humor and choosing to attack each other, a global pandemic, an awkward transition in Presidential leadership, and a reckoning with America’s history and its present implications, there’s a weird lack of morale that must be addressed. But thanks be to God we have a cure to the collective illness! Live music.

MerleFest returns Sept. 16-19 with an amazing lineup and it’s none too soon. How we lived without live music I don’t know, but now we can start making plans for one of the most exciting annual live events in the whole Southeast. Even though we’re used to this one-of-a-kind festival taking place in the spring, this year’s late summer schedule will still feature the songwriting contests, the festival atmosphere, the family-friendly environment, and general good energy that we always need.

No matter what we’ve been going through, no matter how commercial the world becomes, no matter how transactional our relationships can get, no matter how dark the world becomes, no matter how deep our griefs, MerleFest reminds us time and time again that we are OK. That’s the power of live music in general, but it’s particularly true when the community in and around Wilkesboro welcomes the world for a weekend of soulful, spirit-lifting, peace-making, locally-led transcendence that draws some of the best musicians from across genres and categories. This year’s line-up is particularly strong — and it’s a good thing because we have needed them!

The headliners are some of the best known acts in music. Sturgill Simpson, the country singer who simultaneously evokes memories of Waylon Jennings and Marvin Gaye, has been one of a number of artists who have breathed new life into country music. Mavis Staples is a legendary gospel, pop and soul singer going back decades to when she performed with her father, Pops Staples. Melissa Etheridge has been a household name since the 1990s with her country-rock sound, raspy voice, and tender but gritty lyrics. Shovels and Rope have continued a tradition of rich story-telling while finding new contemporary paths with haunting lyrics, rock and blues influenced instrumentation, and great voices. LeAnn Rimes now uses her powerful voice to transcend her early fame as a pop-country performer. The Tedeschi Trucks Band combines one of the most notable blues singers of the last twenty years, Susan Tedeschi, with her husband, Derek Trucks, who is considered by some to be the greatest guitar player of this generation in the tradition of his Uncle Butch’s bandmates Duane Allman, Dickie Betts and Warren Haynes from the Allman Brothers. Margo Price has made a name for herself with ironic, sensitive and intelligent songs carried by her distinctive voice.

As always, there are younger acts for whom MerleFest provides a huge new audience. Balsam Range, the Waybacks, and Sythian are fast becoming regulars at MerleFest, bringing their committed fans with them. Yasmin Williams, Amythyst Kiah, and Brittney Spencer bring fresh energy and new voices to old styles rooted in the deepest American traditions (scouting report: do NOT miss them!).

But much of what continues the spirit of authenticity and community that Doc Watson intended in MerleFest is passed down by the MerleFest “elders.” These are the veterans who are legends in their own right, who knew Doc Watson. They return time and again (if not every year) to renew their vow to let the audience in on it when they're enjoying themselves playing music, to honor the song not just by playing “hot licks” but by playing the right licks for the song, and to keep reinterpreting the human condition through music. Sam Bush, Jim Lauderdale, John Cowan, Peter Rowan and Donna the Buffalo are among the regulars who anchor the MerleFest vibe.

Tickets for MerleFest went on sale to the public on June 10. Prices are always affordable with all kinds of add-ons. Unlike other festivals, local vendors are given priority for concessions and merchandise.

We've waited a long time for live music to come back. Now that we're almost there, do what you have to do (as in get vaccinated for COVID-19!) so that you can take full advantage of what has proven to be one of the most unique annual experiences around.

News Herald Correspondent Jonathan Henley is a United Methodist pastor, former host of Road Signs radio show, and a music fan. He writes a weekly column for The News Herald. Contact him at

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