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MerleFest day 2: a day of musical discovery

Wilkesboro Community College, Wilkesboro, N.C., April 26, 2024

Reviewed by Kevin Oliver

One of the best parts of a multi-day festival such as MerleFest is the opportunity to discover new-to-you acts, some of whom wind up providing favorite moments of the weekend. Friday's MerleFest lineup offered up a lot of that among the more predictable, well known headliners on the first full day of music across the festival grounds. In addition, there were more first-time MerleFest performances than any year in recent memory, and many provided some of those special moments in their debut sets.

An 11 a.m. set from Kyshona was a perfect example of this phenomenon. A Black female singer with a soulful sound that touched on country, but also soul, blues and gospel, the South Carolina native released her debut album "Legacy" on the same day she premiered with a pair of sets at MerleFest. Bringing only an acoustic guitar and two accompanying female harmony singers, Kyshona captivated the Americana Stage crowd immediately. Telling stories of the songs on her album, she related her search for ancestors and preserving family history by singing gospel-inflected tunes that resonated with her mostly southern audience.

The youth contingent is strong at this year's festival, and the Utah-based group Pixie and the Partygrass Boys were a daytime highlight on the Dance Stage. A high energy ensemble cast of characters led by the outlandish, garishly dressed female singer who presumably goes by "Pixie," their sound incorporated Irish fiddle tunes and more into a western acoustic style that owes a debt to the pioneering work of Sam Bush and others. Plus, it was their MerleFest debut.

Other first-timers making good impressions throughout the day included solid acoustic Americana from The Last Revel and the unique blend of blues, hip-hop, and soul that was Buffalo Nichols. In a self-deprecating set punctuated by Delta blues licks and moody instrumental pieces, Nichols' vocal style brought to mind a younger Tom Waits at times.

Thoughout the day, it was the new acts providing the major moments to remember. Chatham Rabbits have been at MerleFest before, but they're still gaining notice for their homespun melodies and new take on an old format. Larkin Poe rocked the Watson Stage with a powerhouse set that rocked into dusk with electrified blues tunes alongside their original material.

Scottish trio The Langan Band were the surprise hit of the day, with their Traditional Stage set attended by an overflow crowd. They were on their first North American tour ever, playing high energy folk, fiddle and Celtic-inflected material that drew from traditional sources, but wasn't limited by that at all.

Willie Carlisle made the most out of his Cabin Stage performance later in the evening. He's a modern day Woody Guthrie or Steve Goodman, playing around with protest songs, topical folk tunes, poignant storytelling and interjecting his own passionate pleas for workers rights, women's rights, anti-war sentiments and more.

The major acts of the day, in comparison, met expectations without particularly exceeding them, such as Chatham County Line at the Hillside stage in the early afternoon. One of the bands out of North Carolina that pioneered the expansion of bluegrass music into a wider acoustic roots style, they've been at it for over two decades now, no longer the upstarts. As such, they paced the crowd through a solid set of their back catalog and new tunes from their latest album "Hiyo."

Headliners The Turnpike Troubadours have made a name for themselves with constant national touring, and they brought a large fan base out for their Watson Stage set. The Oklahoma band's sound is a bit of a throwback, to the '70s heyday of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band or "Lonesome Jubilee" era John Mellencamp, a version of that heartland rock sound.

In a way, they offer up an alternative version of where country music could have gone in the last decade. Instead of drum machines, auto-tune and bro country, imagine heartfelt ballads and twang-filled but still rocking anthems worthy of an amphitheater act. That they're from the same state as Garth Brooks only serves to underscore the alternate vision of how things could or should have gone.

The late night dance tent set is positioned as a fun, somewhat throwaway postscript to each night, offering additional music to those who just don't want to go back to their beds yet. Friday night's performance came from Shinyribs, who also put out an energetic Watson Stage set earlier in the day. They are an Austin musical revue led by Kevin Russell, formerly with the alt.-country act The Gourds.

Russell is the gaudily attired ringleader of a large group that includes backup singers, a horn section, and organ, and every bit of it was used on this show. The band's specialty is reaching back into the classic, sometimes forgotten rock and soul classics for party-ready material, and they pulled out classics such as "Matilda" from Fats Domino, "Barefootin," "Sea of Love" and more from Gary US Bonds and others. It was a welcome closing for a day that saw both impressive newcomers and solid, if unremarkable, veterans.

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