ack on its traditional spring schedule after cancellation and delay the last two years due to the pandemic, MerleFest 2022 kicked off Thursday night with a diverse, even surprising lineup. There were the usual spots from blues picker Roy Bookbinder, local Wilkesboro tradition The Banknotes and Pete Wernick's music campers and an energetic opening set from bluegrass act Fireside Collective.
But the crowd was also treated to the expanded lineup of The Steel Wheels, whose four-man acoustic band is now complete with electric guitars and drums, making them a worthy successor to the blended Americana of Little Feat or The Band.
Speaking of full bands, Donard Jones and the Indications brought a classic R&B ensemble to the Watson Stage, moving and grooving the audience to original soul tunes and a sing-along version of The Beatles' "Don't Bring Me Down."
Trampled By Turtles kept the energy level high for the evening audience. Their traditional acoustic lineup is anything but ordinary, combining frenetic tempos with stellar musicianship to provide an entertaining set that was long on jamming, much to the delight of their dancing fans.
Tenille Townes is more rocker than country girl, though she has earned a couple of ACM nods for her work. She made the most of her first time at Merlefest, blasting through her set with an electric guitarist and drummer along to fill things out on songs such as "Lemonade Stand."
Josh Turner closed out the night on the Watson Stage by showcasing his hits and that signature voice, deeper than the deep south state of South Carolina where he's from. "Deep South" was an early highlight, covering that upbringing in a deep fried, swampy country style.
Turner has won awards in gospel as well as country, so it's no surprise he dipped into that side of his repertoire as well, with a version of Hank Williams' "I Saw The Light" straddling his two musical paths nicely. He and the band also threw out a mini-set of classic country tunes from his **Country State Of Mind** album, including Keith Whitley's "I'm No Stranger to the Rain."
Turner's appeal has lasted two decades, and as he noted from stage, this was his first MerleFest appearance. He was a great fit for the Thursday headliner slot, which is typically filled by a mainstream, heritage country act. With the string of hits he threw out effortlessly on this night, from "Me and God" to "Hometown Girl", Turner proved he belongs, both as a classic country artist and a crowd pleaser.