It’s the season of road trips, including many people’s favorite Spring pilgrimage to Merlefest in the hills of Western North Carolina. It was my ritual for a decade, my bluegrass and Americana graduate school. I learned about not just the music and its greatest practitioners but about the culture behind the music, from its families of fans to its record labels and promoters. So it was a delight when a few years back Roots became a stop-in for key artists playing the festival on the Wednesday before its Thursday four-day kickoff. Funny enough, not many weeks ago our booking secret agents were telling me that they this year’s Merle-Eve lineup wasn’t coming together easily. Well, it seems their luck turned, and in a rush, four of the coolest bands in the land – all beloved veterans of MCR – signed up to perform. This is a bandwagon you want to be on.
Now it can be told. That “secret surprise” artist you’ve seen on our website will be the mighty and magnificent Wood Brothers. Their people wanted to hold the news until they’d played Earth Day in Nashville this weekend, and we understand that. But now that it’s public, let’s recall why we’ve seen the Woods as so quintessentially MCR. Brothers Oliver and Chris grew up in Colorado in a family that loved folk music and poetry. They went different directions though: Oliver to Atlanta and a career in the blues while Chris studied jazz at the New England Conservatory and formed the mighty Medeski, Martin & Wood, a bold, inventive band that united jazzbos and jam band fans. The brothers got back together for a debut album a little more than ten years ago, and they’ve accelerated their efforts as time’s gone by. Now they’re a top-shelf rocking folk/soul band that includes the amazing drummer Jano Rix. Their recordings, largely made in Nashville, their newish home, have been deeply satisfying in their lyrical depth, passionate singing and overall sound. The latest, Paradise, was cut at Dan Auerbach’s studio and has perhaps a few more rocking edges than prior work, but its organic naturalism suits Merlefest, and us, perfectly.
Donna The Buffalo returns with its amazing swirl of squeezebox, Hammond organ, fiddle and pulsing electric guitar. Their hippified Zyedeco sound first reached my eager ears at Merlefest ages ago when they were stirring the Dance Tent into a swirl of sweat and energy. They’re as fine a band for close listening as they are for a party – a sound that’s been honed and practiced since 1989. Jeb Puyear and Tara Nevins share vocal and songwriting duties with he on Stratocaster and she on fiddle or sometimes Cajun rubboard. They don’t make news very often; they just play and tour and play and tour. But it’s cool to see that last fall they had an epic night at the Ramble at Levon Helm’s studio in New York stage, not far from where the band set out on its adventure more than 25 years ago.
Were one to extract the old-time component of D the B’s sound and shift its influences over to the Pacific Northwest, you’d have something close to the Foghorn String Band, the acoustic and down-home side of musician Caleb Klauder, who plays mandolin in this ensemble. Sammy Lind is a top flight fiddler, while Reeb Willms and Nadine Landry brings powerful, keening female vocals (think Hazel & Alice) to the band. They last played the show in early 2014 when I wrote: “I’d think any sentient person would feel the calling of life in this music as rendered by Foghorn. Besides the fire and reel of their instrumental skills, the current quartet has a lot of vocal options. . . .I couldn’t keep my seat during this stuff.”
Neither last nor least, we’re excited to see The Whiskey Gentry again, because their first set at MCR was good enough to get on our American Public Television series. The Atlanta based band began as a more perfect union of husband and wife Lauren Staley and Jason Morrow. In 2011 a fleshed out band with drums and bass and fiddle released the debut album Please Make Welcome and the world did, with bookings in clubs and festivals throughout the East. This band can play it cool and country or rock your face off. Can’t wait to see what they’ve been up to lately.
And that’s a band of bands you’ll see nowhere else, except Merlefest.