Morris turns up star power at Merlefest with winning set
Wilkesboro Community College, Wilkesboro, N.C., April 29, 2023
Reviewed by Kevin Oliver
Big things happened at MerleFest on Saturday, drawing the biggest crowds of the weekend. This year, Maren Morris headlining the evening lineup brought in even more fans just to see her.
The Hillside Album Hour hosted by The Waybacks has been a huge hit since it started 10 years ago as the band along with special guests interpret an entire classic rock album. This year's entry was The Who, with "Who's Next," the band's epic 1971 album featuring well-known songs such as "Won't Get Fooled Again." Guests on board included Sam Bush, the Kruger Brothers, and singer Kimber Ludiker from the bluegrass band Della Mae, who handled most of the Roger Daltrey parts with ease. Interspersed within the album songs were several tributes to artists who recently passed away, including Burt Bacharach, Loretta Lynn and David Crosby.
The other big event on Saturday was an observance of what would have been Doc Watson's 100 birthday this year. The occasion was marked with an all-star jam on the Watson stage featuring special guests including T Michael Coleman, Jack Lawrenced\ and Peter Rowan singing songs known through Doc.
The biggest event of the day, however, was the much anticipated headline show from country star Morris. Her nighttime set was prefaced by a lengthy jam-filled excursion by the Sam Bush Band and a strong set of songs presented by songwriter Lori McKenna, which served as a reminder of all the country hits she has been a part of writing over the years, including The Highwomen hit "Crowded Table" and Tim McGraw's "Humble and Kind."
Morris has been a hit making machine the past few years and she pulled out all the biggest ones for her first time at Merlefest. With no artist introduction, Morris strode out to center stage as her band swelled into "The Furthest Thing," an album track from her 2022 album. "Humble Quest/" One of the hits from that album came next, "Circles Around This Town," as Morris strapped on an acoustic guitar.
The set continued with the early hit "80s Mercedes" before Morris stopped to remark about this being her first time playing Merlefest, but she had many friends there today including Jim Lauderdale and Lori McKenna.
After one more mellow country track, "Wish I Was," Morris leaned into the heady pop country that gave her some of the biggest hits of her career, including "Girl," and "The Middle," her co write with Grey and Zedd that's pretty far from anything traditional country.
Morris is the kind of artist that straddles new country and the traditional song based country with no apologies, however. It's all just her, and her fans were given the full range of what she can do, and who she is, on this night.
Morris revealed a little about herself throughout the show, dedicating "Tall Guys" to her 6'3" husband (Morris is only 5'1", a disparity she noted from the stage introducing the song). "Hummingbird" was written when her son was born, Morris said he was now three as she dedicated the song to him with her co-writer Lolrki McKenna watching from the wings of the Watson stage.
Morris also talked about her most recent album, "Humble Quest", written and recorded during the pandemic, and she said she learned "when it's absolutely okay to not just shut up and sing," as she introduced the title track.
Morris and her band seemed looser than usual, perhaps due to the unique Merlefest environment, and they threw in at least one special moment for the crowd – a cover of "Dead Flowers" by the Rolling Stones that she revealed they had only just rehearsed on the bus prior to the show. She also recorded the song for the just-released "Stoned Cold Country" tribute disc.
In the end, Morris not only satisfied her fan base there to see her play the hits, she won over the Merlefest regulars who stuck around to check out the Nashville star.
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