When I arrived at the barn on Wednesday afternoon, it was sunny and seventy-something degrees. As I left for home, the stars were out and it was growing cold. It reminded me of how the balmy days darken into chilly nights in the high country of Wilkes County, North Carolina. I recalled nights bundled up in front of the Watson stage at MerleFest, with lights splashing the trees and music flooding out and up into theAppalachian sky.
I had that specialbuzz as the show wrapped up as well – a contact high from a festival I’ve attended more than a dozen times, even if I can’t make it this year. Our second partnership show featuring artists on their way to play MerleFest was more than even I expected, with a perfect flow and a special glow.
We opened with soul and energy as Josh Farrow fronted a six piece band. He’s got the lanky look of a 1970s folk rocker and a voice of mellow strength. The set grew form a slow minor key hymn set with organ, shakers and a “Hallelujah” refrain to the rocking closer “Devil Don’t You Fool Me.” Along the way tall Joey Fletcher played excellent steel and electric guitar while Kate Cunningham sang gorgeous harmony vocals. There are shades of The Band and The Burritos in Josh’s music, and it ought to win new fans at the Merle.
Then we entered a stretch where the boldness of two solo performers was matched by the astute attention of our wonderful audience. Roy Book Binder is used to performing solo; that’s been his deal for years. But not only is he an inspiring and fascinating finger-picker who makes his old flat-top guitar dance, he’s a wit with great comic timing. I’ve loved this school of music for decades so I was enthralled. He sang a sweet original homage to his former mentor and inspiration Rev. Gary Davis. He offered “Travelin’ Man,” learned from South Carolina blues man Pink Anderson. And he left us with the life advice of original album title cut “The Good Book.” The audience showed him lots of love. “If it was like this every night, I’d go pro,” said Roy with a wink.
It’s challenging to entertain with just a guitar, but taking only a mandolin to center stage for a set is BRAVE. Yet that’s what Mike Compton did, and he had everyone stone silent and focused within a few notes. He leans back and in to his instrument as he draws tone and dynamics out of the mandolin that just aren’t audible in a full bluegrass band. He caresses the strings with his pick and excels in fretboard slides and slurs that make the instrument decidedly fiddle-like. Compton opened with instrumental “Tennessee Breakdown” and then moved on to a sweetly swinging blues. I’d not really ever heard Mike’s singing by itself, but it’s quite amazing, with overtones of Tim O’Brien and Mike’s old Nashville Bluegrass Band colleague Pat Enright. He switched to a lower-tuned mandolin for set-closer “Jenny Lynn,” a tune that’s name-checked in the famous “Uncle Pen” but that’s rarely heard. Compton’s droning, rhythmic performance sounded simple but was anything but. When he switched the melody to the low string, everybody kind of came unglued. This was mastery.
You couldn’t ask for a better demonstration of how many ways there are to play mandolin than to invite Sierra Hull up to follow Compton. Her clean arpeggios and delicate runs stood in stark contrast to his loose, legato feeling. But she’s dazzling, as is her whole band of young guns. They opened with a moody and flowing instrumental with fugue-like sections and a propulsive newgrass energy. The song “Best Buy” was pure swing with gliding vocals by Sierra. She contributed a new, unrecorded song called “Wings Of The Dawn” that had the serene feeling of an ancient ballad, sung over two fiddles and a bass. The quartet showed their youthful virtuosity on the swift set-closer “Daybreak In Dixie.”
The shift from modern, searching bluegrass to the classic sound of Town Mountain was the best salute to Merlefest I can imagine – proof that all sides of the tradition can exist in magnificent harmony. Robert Greer’s blue voice dug right into the driving “Tick On A Dog.” Banjo player Jesse Langlais kicked off the more mournful and slow tune he wrote with a delicate figure. Bobby Britt’s fiddle took charge on danceable instrumental “Four Miles.” Mando man Phil Barker let his edgy mountain voice loose on rocking closer “Tarheel Boys.” Their set was efficient, showing lots of color and soul in a short stretch of time. I hope and expect to see a lot of Town Mountain at the World of Bluegrass in Raleigh later this year.
Sierra Hull ran out after her interview to immediately jump on a bus to make it to MerleFest for the opening night headlining set with Alan Jackson’s bluegrass band. Town Mountain stayed a day to play an East Nashville gig before driving East for their dates at the festival. Everyone else headed out somewhere in between. They’ll all make it. They’ll all kill it. And they’re bound to have a lot of fun. Dang it. I’m making reservation for next year.