aturdays at Merlefest are almost overwhelming for the crowds who gather to watch, but sometimes even more so for the groups who play multiple sets on different stages throughout the day, sit for fans at the autograph tent, and maybe get a chance to sit in or sing with others, too.
Particularly busy acts this year were The South Carolina Broadcasters, who just may have set the record for number of appearances in a weekend in just their first year at Merlefest - after multiple sets on Friday they added to their total on Saturday with another slot at the Traditional tent and a square dance set at the Dance Stage. They're doing something right, it seems, because the Traditional Stage audience was their biggest yet.
The Snyder Family Band, who also turned heads on Friday, opened the Watson Stage proceedings Saturday morning - their first time on the main stage in four years of Merlefest appearances. The trio's instrumental prowess is even more apparent in that larger setting, with Zeb Snyder's melodic sense on the guitar shining through in a highly developed fashion; his runs are fast, but so clean one can hear individual notes distinctly.
Samantha Snyder mentioned Mark O'Connor as one of her fiddle heroes, during this set it was easy to see and hear that influence on her playing. At their set on the Little Pickers stage later in the day, another young Snyder came on to sing with them and stole the show - give him a couple years, and he'll be joining the rest of the family on stage.
Red Molly followed the Snyders in what was their own Watson Stage debut, and they were in a sunny mood despite the cool, damp weather. "We don't care if it is 50 degrees, we're wearing our short dresses today," one of the girls commented from the stage, adding, "There is very little fabric between you and me." They offered up some nice Dobro work and an attention-grabbing a capella number during their set.
Chatham County Line only played one set at this year's Merlefest, and singer Dave Wilson took note of their long absence from their home state festival. "It has been about seven years since we have been here," he said, "Nobody called, so we thought we'd come back and see you in person." Highlights included an energetic Out of the Runnin' and a nice slow ballad, One More Minute.
The Hillside Stage on Saturday is all about anticipation for the Hillside Album Hour with The Waybacks and friends, but before the big reveal of what album was going to be featured this year, a couple notable sets were turned in by Michael Martin Murphey and Scythian.
Murphey was making his Merlefest debut, and while yes, he did sing Wildfire, there was a lot more to the set than that early hit song.
Murphey related an anecdote where he asked someone what he should play for a Merlefest show, and he was told 'Just play from the heart,' which he proceeded to do. Opening with the loping bluegrass of Carolina In the Pines and proceeding through both his own hits such as Long Line of Love and covers of Marty Robbins and The Monkees, Murphey turned in a thoroughly enjoyable performance.
Scythian drew the unenviable pre-Album Hour set, but rose to the occasion with audience participation numbers that had the hillside crowd on their feet clapping and jumping, at least as much as they could on the steep slope, made a bit slippery by the onset of some light rain. The weather didn't dampen the enthusiasm or the crowd for The Waybacks and their popular Album Hour set, where for the last six years they have presented a classic rock album in its entirety; this year's clues included the fact that the time frame for the set suggested it would be a double-length album, which it was. The album ended up being Dylan and The Band's live album Before the Flood, which allowed the participants to do almost a greatest hits style revue of both artists since it contained many of their best known songs. With Mike Farris on vocals and Della Mae, Eilen Jewell, John Cowan, Jim Lauderdale, Kym Warner of the Greencards, Jans Kruger, and more joining it, it was a well-received choice.
The Saturday evening headliners included Merlefest staple Sam Bush in both a Doc Watson tribute set and one with the Sam Bush Band, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band closing out the evening. The Doc tribute was especially poignant given the fact that this is the first post-Doc Merlefest; guests included a surprise appearance from Sunday afternoon headliners the Avett Brothers.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band have been performing for 47 years, and they drew from across that broad career for their late evening set. Fans were treated to many of the band's best known songs including Dance Little Jean, Working Man (Nowhere to Go) and Mr. Bojangles, with a couple more obscure picks and a jam or two thrown in for an excellent night of country, bluegrass and more.