By Laura Ord
Attendees at the much-loved North Carolina festival were able to witness show-stopping sets from Bee Taylor, Tommy Prine and more.
2023 marked the 35th anniversary of North Carolina’s legendary Merlefest. But this year, the centerpiece of the weekend was the all-encompassing celebration of what would have been Merlefest founder Doc Watson’s 100th birthday. Not only were there multiple Doc-themed jams, but artists throughout the weekend paid homage to Doc, sharing memories and music.
Festival Director Wes Whitson commented, “MerleFest 35 was something special. We can’t thank everyone enough for their support. Thank you to the artists and fans, and to our amazing staff and the small army of dedicated volunteers who work hard each and every year to make MerleFest the premier roots based music festival in the country".
A sense of community encompasses the weekend. From spontaneous artist collaborations to fans that return yearly, MerleFest has sewn deep roots in the hearts of many and is an incredible legacy for Doc and the Watson family.
Here is Holler's pick of 10 of the best acts throughout the weekend.
Equal parts George Jones and Paul Janeway with the charisma of both combined, Joshua Ray Walker played to those brave enough to battle the rain on Thursday night. Including a cover of Lionel Ritchie’s 'Hello' in his set, Walker delighted fans on the Cabin Stage. The Texan performed songs off his trilogy of albums Wish You Were Here, Glad You Made It, and See You Next Time.
North Carolina natives The Avett Brothers closed out the Saturday night of MerleFest to a rowdy crowd. The group played over an hour-and-a-half of fan-favorites along with a tribute to the late Calypso legend Harry Belafonte, adding their unique twist to “Jump In The Line”.
We caught country and Americana singer-songwriter Miko Marks on Friday afternoon. Covering Creedence Clearwater Revival’s 'Put A Candle in the Window', Miko’s gospel background shined through in her own brand of country. With rich, soulful vocals and harmonies, her performance was certainly a stand-out.
Joking about how he “looked just like the guy from The Civil Wars” John Paul White played a set consisting of songs from the duo, some of his solo work, and even his Taylor Swift collaboration 'Safe and Sound'.
Bee Taylor played the Cabin Stage on Friday night, nestled between Marcus King and The Avett Brothers, blending both worlds with her mystical and spellbinding performance. Taylor’s music is cool and melodic, saturated with New Orleans flavor. We were first transfixed by Bee when we saw her Jam in the Van video and were excited to see her perform 'Ten Foot Pole', 'Cheap Wine', and 'Weeds'.
Hosted by the Kruger Brothers, Doc’s 100th Birthday Jam featured a variety of special guests including Jerry Douglas, Mitch Greenhill, Peter Rowan, T Michael Coleman,and many more. The jam was a tender and light tribute to the late Doc Watson, breathing new life into some of his best known songs and offering antidotes about the late musician.
Songwriter Lori McKenna charmed the crowd with her humility and storytelling between playing a selection of the chart-topping hits she has written. Telling fans it was such an honor for a “housewife from Massachusetts”, McKenna played songs like 'Humble and Kind' covered by Tim McGraw and 'Happy People', the Little Big Town collaboration. Closing her set with the massively successful 'Girl Crush', McKenna left a lasting mark on those who may not have known she was behind the pen on some of their favorite songs.
Cole Chaney’s masterful songwriting proves that he is wise beyond his years. Cole performed songs from his 2021 debut Mercy, as well as his OurVinyl EP. Cole’s music is scrappy and it’s raw. He doesn’t shy from the truth and talks about the woes of Blue Collar America. His music is about yearning for something more, something better, a familiar ache.
Kentucky duo The Local Honeys made a triumphant return to MerleFest, having made their debut in 2017 when they won the Bluegrass category for the songwriting contest. We caught The Local Honeys in the Walker Center and were met with the embrace of their deep grooves. Playing songs akin to those of Cole Chaney - about the opioid epidemic and the pain points of living in the holler - The Local Honeys are acutely aware that they play beautiful, heartbreaking music.
The son of the late John Prine, 27-year-old Tommy played twice for his first time at MerleFest. Promoting the June release of his debut album, we caught Tommy on the Traditional stage for his second performance of the day. Tommy’s vulnerable and tender introduction gives listeners a glimpse into the depths of grief and the beautiful optimism of a new love. We’re so excited to hear the album in full.
Photography by Laura Ord.
For more coverage of Merlefest 2023, see below: