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10 Artists to See at MerleFest

By Amanda Wicks

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The fluttery thrill that precedes a four-day stretch of live music has been absent for far too long. But festival fans are slowly regaining that rousing anticipation. The “traditional plus” MerleFest, aiming to celebrate all things roots-related, returns Sep. 16-19 in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, and festival organizers are making up for lost time.

This year, attendees have a lot to get excited about.

Held on the campus of Wilkes Community College, headliners include Sturgill Simpson, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Melissa Etheridge, Mavis Staples, Margo Price and LeAnn Rimes. With 13 stages to see, fans have an absolute glut of music to enjoy.

The event isn’t just a celebration of roots music — it’s a huge fundraiser for the college and local organizations. Festival director Ted Hagaman estimates that around 70 local civic groups participate in the event, which helps them raise money. “They count on this money every year to fuel all the projects and things they do,” he explains. When MerleFest had to postpone last year’s event, Hagaman said, “It really hurt a lot of organizations.”

Like a growing number of musicians, venues and events, MerleFest will require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test within 72 hours of gate entry. Hagaman says the festival will be providing onsite testing, though it will be a small set-up, which is why he encourages everyone to take care of testing before arrival - “It’s a lot better to be inside the gate listening to music instead of outside in a line waiting to get tested”.

After an overly long hiatus, MerleFest promises good cheer. “I think a lot of people are out there looking for something positive,” says Hagaman. “I think MerleFest is a place [attendees] can kind of escape the world for four days, and I think it will be a good healing activity for people to do.”

Let that fluttery feeling build and look over the 10 artists we’re most excited to see when MerleFest returns on Sep. 16.

Sturgill Simpson

Given that MerleFest offers “traditional plus” music, Sturgill Simpson fits right in — and then some. In recent years, the country singer/songwriter has been exploring other genres, including a two-volume bluegrass album, Cuttin’ Grass, and a new album-length story that unfolds against traditional Western music, The Ballad of Dood & Juanita. When Simpson headlines from 9-10:30 p.m. local time on Thursday, it’s going to be memorable.

Mavis Staples

Is there any better voice to “heal” an audience hungry for live music and the connection that brings than Mavis Staples? The iconic — and tireless — performer is part of the lineup closing the festival on Sunday, when she takes the stage 2:25-3:25 p.m. local time. Whether performing songs of her latest album, 2019’s We Get By, or delivering some of her moving classics, Staples’ rousing voice promises to be both salve and celebration.

Melissa Etheridge

The legendary Melissa Etheridge headlines MerleFest on Sunday, when she performs 4:15-5:45 p.m. It’s been two years since she released her last album, 2019’s The Medicine Show, and she’s plotting a new release, One Way Out, which arrives the Friday of MerleFest — two days before she takes the stage. With standout singles like ‘Cool As You Try’, fans will enjoy hearing Etheridge’s new music and, of course, her big hits as well.

Brittney Spencer

If you’ve recently caught the video of Brittney Spencer singing Merry Clayton’s part on ‘Gimme Shelter’ during one of Jason Isbell’s live shows at the Ryman, then you know her powerful vocal talent. After years singing backup for other country stars, Spencer has come into her own since releasing her EP Compassion in 2020 and her new single ‘Sober and Skinny’. Lucky attendees get the chance to see her twice on Saturday when she plays 12:15-1:00 p.m. and 3:15-4:00 p.m.

Yasmin Williams

Acclaimed solo guitarist Yasmin Williams has cultivated a style all her own, equal parts technical proficiency and capacious storyteller. The inventive musician plays not once but twice on Saturday: 2-2:45 p.m. and 6:45-7:30 p.m. local time. If you’ve heard Urban Driftwood, Williams’ latest album, you know the magic she’s capable of eliciting from the guitar.

Amythyst Kiah

The forthright artist — and member of Our Native Daughters — released her latest album Wary + Strange earlier this year, and really came into her own as a songwriter and truth-teller. Amythyst Kiah performs three times on Friday, giving attendees ample time to hear the way she fuses roots-related genres to structure her earnest lyricism: 12:45-1:30 p.m., 3:30-5:00 p.m. and 7:50-8:30 p.m.

Joe Troop

North Carolinian and multi-instrumentalist Joe Troop is perhaps most well known as the co-founder of the Grammy-nominated Argentinian-American string band Che Apalache. With the release of his solo album, 2021’s Borrowed Time, the openly gay bluegrass artist addresses an array of topical issues with a radical eye that would make protest predecessors Pete Seeger and Woodie Guthrie proud. Troop plays twice on Friday: 1:15-2 p.m. and 5:30-6:15 p.m. local time.

Sarah Shook & the Disarmers

Alt-country singer/songwriter Sarah Shook is among a cohort of LGBTQ roots artists performing at MerleFest over the weekend, and shifting the notion about who gets to play traditional and country music. Shook recently signed with Thirty Tigers, a move that will hopefully bring about new music sooner rather than later. As fans await the follow-up to 2018’s Years, they can enjoy Shook and their band on Saturday from 5-6:00 p.m. local time.

Bill and the Belles

The Tennessee-based roots group is one of the quirkier offerings of the weekend. They recently released the tongue-in-cheek album Happy Again, which examines divorce with their trademark sense of humor — and harmonies. Considering that Bill and the Belles turned a dark moment into something creative, they’re an ideal band to witness after the past year and a half. They play twice on Friday, from 3-3:45 p.m and 6:15-7:00 p.m. local time.

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For more information on MerleFest, visit their site here.