Rissi Palmer and More Highlight Friday at MerleFest
MerleFest has a tendency to feature just as many interesting acts in the early hours of the schedule as they do in the marquee headlining spots, and Friday's schedule was proof of that, with Rissi Palmer making her festival debut on the Americana stage and festival veterans such as Sierra Hull, Scythian and Peter Rowan filling up stages early on.
At noon, the multicultural, eclectic ensemble Scythian inspired the crowd at the dance tent, reminding the audience that the members were children of Ukrainian immigrants who had come to the U.S. during World War II. To honor their heritage and take note of the current Ukraine war, the band taught the crowd to sing along to the chorus of a Ukrainian drinking song, which they then played with enthusiasm and loud audience participation.
Hull was a last minute substitute for Natalie Hemby, but her long history with MerleFest made her a welcome addition. During her Friday afternoon set at the Americana stage, Hull delved deep into her back catalog and shared some of her memories of being at the festival as young as 10. Showing her commitment to the next generation of great pickers, she even featured another preteen prodigy on a Bill Monroe tune.
Palmer has the kind of full-throated, soulful voice that can captivate a crowd. Add her outsized personality, and she had the Americana stage audience on her side from the start even as she apologized for her drummer running late and turning the set into an impromptu acoustic session.
Palmer opened with "Country Girl," a song she introduced as the first song by an African- American female singer to come from an album that made the Billboard country chart.
Palmer's identity as both an African American and a country singer can present some interesting situations, but she sidestepped the political by going straight for the personal in her intro to "Seeds," from her 2019 album "Revival," which was her most impassioned vocal performance of the set. Its refrain asking "what kind of seed do you want to be," struck a chord with the audience, many of whom gave it a standing ovation.
For anyone doubting her country roots still, Palmer's performance of "Summerville," from her 2015 "Back Porch Sesssions," should have put that uncertainty to rest. Prefacing the poignant acoustic tune about her small town roots with family stories and references to singing for the first time on her grandmother's front porch, into a broom handle, Palmer instantly related her own story to most of the MerleFest audience. "So this one's for anyone who came from a small town, and a family that nurtured you there," She said as she strummed the opening chords.
If there is an elder statesman of MerleFest, Rowan is probably it. His Walker Center set featured his full bluegrass band, and it touched upon various corners of his long career, including an opening take on the classic "Panama Red," which he first recorded with New Riders of the Purple Sage. Other highlights included "Moonlight" and a version of "Freedom" that left room for extended soloing from the band members.
Country and bluegrass songwriter and guitarist Shawn Camp sat in with the band on a new song that is slated to appear on an upcoming album, with a chorus of "She's the dance that made Hank Williams sing, she's the song that made him dance."
With all of this happening before dinnertime, the main stage sessions were almost an afterthought. The Wood Brothers and Greensky Bluegrass did their thing, with the Wood Brothers' slightly funky acoustic/electric tones at dusk melding seamlessly into the more expansive, jam-friendly instrumental excursions of Greensky Bluegrass. Both Hull and Palmer added Cabin Stage sets to their day in between the headliners, reinforcing their appeal and perhaps gaining a few new fans in the throngs across the Watson Stage field.