We schemed up our special Merlefest show concept two years ago, and they’ve been superb, with stars like Sierra Hull and Peter Rowan included on the bills. We work with the organizers of Merlefest to identify bands and artists who are positioned to play Roots on Wednesday and then drive over to the Appalachian town of N. Wilkesboro NC where their Merlefest stages await.
I hope you’ve attended this wonderful event, but just in case this is news to you, Merlefest is among the nation’s leading music festivals, setting the gold standard for big-tent Americana/roots gatherings in the early 90s. I’ve written at length about this awesome gathering in the past, because I got a large part of my roots music education at Merlefest starting in about 1991. It was launched as a simple gathering of star bluegrass musicians to honor the memory of Merle Watson after his tragic accidental death in 1985. Doc Watson’s son was a great player and an anchor in Doc’s life. Doc has been an anchor in the lives of anyone who’s followed traditional American music since the 60s.
On this year’s Merlefest celebration, two of our acts are returning favorites. And we’re hearing from a couple of veteran acts who perhaps should have been on Roots a while ago. Let’s start with them.
I discovered The Spinney Brothers recently when they performed on the IBMA Awards in Raleigh. It was one of those ‘what took me so long?’ moments. Their song was a driving, witty tribute to the father of bluegrass called “My Music Comes From Bill.” Allan and Rick Spinney’s voices locked together with sibling simpatico. There was a bright force about them, and I wanted to know more. Turns out they’re from Nova Scotia, Canada. They’ve made somewhere around a dozen albums together going back to the early 90s, when the guys looked very young indeed. A few years ago the Spinneys started getting substantial U.S. airplay, and in 2013 they were nominated as the IBMA Emerging Artist of the Year (only twenty years into their recording career!). With the punchy and emotional sound captured on the current release Tried & True, I have a new frame of reference, and I expect to include the Spinneys in any future spin through what’s good in today’s bluegrass scene.
The other veterans on the bill making a Roots debut is a band that our own Keith Bilbrey’s had experience with, because Baillie And The Boys were prominent in Nashville and on country radio as the 80s gave way to the 90s. Built around the married couple of Kathie Baillie and Michael Bonagura, they made pop country with strong ties to L.A. folk and country rock, a la the Desert Rose Band. Kathie’s voice strikes me as a blend of Emmylou Harris and Suzy Bogguss. The spare trio format leaves lots of room for harmonization and a pure focus on the song. The group released ten top ten country hits and contributed to a diverse era on the radio. They performed or worked with Vince Gill, Randy Travis, George Strait and others. They took some time apart but released a very nice Unplugged album in 2011, whose clean, breezy tone likely foreshadows the sound they’ll bring to our stage.
From the department of creative re-scheduling comes the wonderful Asheville, North Carolina roots/country band The Honeycutters. They first joined us in August 2010 and then came back in October 2012, delivering a performance we were proud to include in our first season on American Public Television. Then we had them on the books for a mid-February show, but that got cancelled due to ice and snow. But we have warm feelings for these guys, so they’re all set to play their bittersweet mountain country music for you all on Wednesday. Vocalist Amanda Platt has a voice that’s complex, sweet and aching. Even more potently, she writes songs that folks are citing as up there with the best of the field, such as Mary Gauthier and Lucinda Williams. The group was named best Americana band in the Smoky Mountain region by the cultural beacon Mountain Xpress three years running. Since then they’ve grown and deepened, and it’s high time for a check-in as they climb further up the ladder of Americana music.
I’ve saved our show closing artists for last here, but only by way of saying that your anticipation meter ought to be trembling near the red line for The Ragbirds. Fond MCR Alums, this band tickles our fancy for world music, gypsy, Cajun, folk and jazz. They’re highly skilled and always searching for new textures and timbres to involve in their kinetic, seductive amalgam. Fiddler/singer Erin Zindle is the focal point, but it’s truly an interlocked, polyrhythmic sound that could only be achieved by five people working in syncopation. Founded as a street band playing Celtic and gypsy music, they’ve been based out of Ann Arbor, MI and widening their reach over the course of half a dozen albums and intense touring. I’m definitely looking forward to another flight by these birds.
It’s not as easy for me to get to Merlefest as it was when I was younger and singler. But it’s awesome that a little piece of Merlefest comes to us each year. Let’s pick one for Merle, sing one for Doc and have a big time at Liberty Hall.