ne of the traditions of MerleFest is that it always rains at least one of the four days of the festival, but this year as Sunday afternoon rolled around, no significant rain had fallen yet. A spring thunderstorm took care of the tradition, with severe weather warnings forcing an hour-plus delay, but after it cleared, Emmylou Harris took the stage and gave the 2022 edition of MerleFest a fitting sendoff.
The day started on just as much of a country note as it ended; Shannon McNally brought the honky tonk to the Watson stage first thing with a full country band. They were the perfect ensemble to bring out the swing in songs from her recent "The Waylon Sessions" where she covered songs from Waylon Jennings' back catalog; a highlight of the set was her take on the Rodney Crowell tune, "Ain't Living Long Like This."
49 Winchester appeared on the Cabin Stage in its MerleFest debut; the band hails from the same county in Virginia that produced Ralph Stanley, but the 49 Winchester sound is a completely different thing altogether. Their blend of country and southern rock provided a fitting echo to McNally's Waylon-heavy setlist with their own original tunes.
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band have been a going concern now since the 1960s, and they touched on every era of their long hitmaking tenure in a set that was cut short by the severe weather delay.
Opening with their rendition of The Byrds' "You Ain't Going Nowher\," and throwing in their debut single from 1966, "Buy For Me The Rain," the band struck a nostalgic tone from the start. A nod to John Prine with "Grandpa Was A Carpenter" featured the ubiquitous Sam Bush, and a mention was made of the upcoming 50th anniversary of the landmark "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" album, which they pulled from with Jimmy Martin's classic "Walking Shoes," again utilizing Bush on additional mandolin.
The band's upcoming album is an all Bob Dylan collection of songs, "Dirt Does Dylan," and they introduced it with a gorgeous "Girl From The North Country" featuring Jamie Hanna, the son of Dirt Band founder and bandleader Jeff Hanna (and a former member of The Mavericks), on lead vocals.
Even with a delay, Emmylou Harris proved to be well worth sticking out the bad weather, as her angelic tones were probably capable of pushing away at least any metaphorical clouds that might have still been hanging around. Always an ethereal vocal presence, as she has matured, Harris' voice has turned almost otherworldly. With a catalog that contains gems such as her version of "Pancho & Lefty" and "Poor Wayfaring Stranger," Harris transported the remaining audience to a cinematic, spiritual plane.