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Old Crow, Tuttle, Steep Canyon Rangers, Tyminski launch MerleFest

Wilkesboro Community College, Wilkesboro, N.C., April 25, 2024

Reviewed by Kevin Oliver

MerleFest 2024 Opens With Strong Thursday Night Lineup

The 36th annual edition of MerleFest, the North Carolina roots music festival that describes itself as "Traditional Plus," lived up to that billing when it kicked off Thursday night. The lineup included several of the most popular groups in current bluegrass music and offered up some unique and special moments.

Dan Tyminski Band took the Watson stage with a set of solid traditional bluegrass highlighted by his songwriting. Sure, they played his version of the Stanley Brothers "Man of Constant Sorrow" made famous more than 20 years ago via the "O Brother, Where Art Thou" soundtrack, but they also included tunes such as "My Biggest Fan," a song Tyminski introduced by way of a story about his fiddle player Maddie Denton. She is a championship caliber fiddler who left a career as a teacher behind to play bluegrass music. The song touches on the support someone like Denton has to receive to be successful, from her parents and others.

Tyminski also pulled out a powerful rendition of the title track of his most recent album "God Fearing Heathen," in an acoustic solo performance. The most moving moment of the set, however, and one that shone a light on Tyminski's storytelling abilities the best, was the haunting, "Silence in the Brandy," an ode to veterans with PTSD and their struggles after coming home from military service.

The Steep Canyon Rangers were next up on the Watson stage, and if Tyminski was a showcase of how great traditional bluegrass can be, the Rangers proved how far it can be taken in the service of great musicality and performance. They've been more than just another bluegrass act for many years, adding drums and stretching the boundaries of original songwriting within the bluegrass framework, and this set was a perfect example of their talent.

After an instrumental opener, the band members took turns taking lead vocal duties on the various songs, They are all excellent musicians, but the blend of their different voices adds that little bit extra on songs such as "Fare Thee Well, Carolina Gals," where the solo acoustic opening saw the rest of the band gradually join in until the song swelled to multi-part harmony.

There are moments at MerleFest that just happen, and one of those occurred at the end of the Rangers' set as they seemed to be ending their final song only to slide into a full-fledged version of the Allman Brothers' "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed," an homage to the recently passed Dickey Betts. Without an electric guitar in sight, banjo player Graham Sharp replicated Betts' lead solos on his banjo to electrifying results.

With a band and discography that has resulted in two "Best Bluegrass Album" Grammy Awards in the past three years, Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway may have been the most anticipated set of the night, and she and her band delivered on that anticipation.

One of the best guitarists in current bluegrass, Tuttle took several opportunities to show off those chops on impossibly fast solo turns, but mostly she focused on a solid ensemble showcase performing some of her best material alongside interesting cover choices.

The band romped through the Stones' "She's A Rainbow," making a case for it as a pretty decent bluegrass tune. Her own "The River Knows," was enhanced via some piped-in sound effects, but it's moody and spooky enough on its own.

The psychedelic side of things was well represented via her own "Alice in the Bluegrass" morphing into a version of "White Rabbit" tied together by the main fictional character from the famous Lewis Carroll story.

The highlight of Tuttle's set was the point when she introduced her song "Crooked Tree," which references growing up feeling different, and noting her own medical condition, alopecia, that cause her to lose her hair at age three. Tuttle then did what she called a "costume change," by removing her wig and playing the last two songs in her natural, hairless state.

Old Crow Medicine Show headlined the evening as the "local boys done good" story, something they referenced multiple times in their set. Founder Willie Watson played a brief set on the Cabin stage just prior to the Old Crow spectacular on the adjacent Watson stage, and he would pop up later in the night sitting in with his old bandmates for a bit of a reunion event.

At one point, the band brought up local buck dancer Arthur Grimes, who had been present when the band first met the Watson family in Boone, N.C., a day that set them on the course they are still navigating in music.

Old Crow Medicine Show is just that, a "show" in every sense of the word. They are members of the Grand Old Opry, and some of that organization's traditional showmanship has definitely become a part of the Old Crow experience. Bandleader Ketch Secor is a manic presence on stage, rarely stopping his constant movement, egging on the band, serving as lead singer, fiddler, harp player and general master of ceremonies for his musical circus act.

While the overall vibe of an Old Crow set tends to the over-the-top, crazy numbers, there are moments that stop the party for a moment or two. This time around, an a capella one-mike gospel tune at the front of the stage fit that bill, as did their ode to a fallen soldier who had been a fan of the band, "Levi."

By the end of the set, however, the party reigned supreme, with multiple guests on stage with the band, as many as four fiddlers on one song, and that mini reunion of most of the original lineup, tying everything together and capping off an excellent first night of MerleFest.

©Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •
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