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SCR rules bluegrass Saturday night at MerleFest

Wilkes Community College, Wilkesboro, N.C., April 26, 2014

Reviewed by Kevin Oliver

Saturday night at MerleFest this year was weighted heavily toward the bluegrass side of things, and nothing showed that more than the presence of Dr. Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys on the late afternoon Watson stage.

Stanley played to the crowd and made a conscious nod to his '00's resurgence via the "O Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack and film by opening with "Man of Constant Sorrow" and finishing with "O Death."

Former Clinch Mountain Boy Ricky Skaggs brought the latest version of Kentucky Thunder with him for a spotless set of traditional bluegrass on the Watson stage. When a band opens with a classic tune such as "How Mountain Girls Can Love" like Skaggs and company did, you know you're getting the real deal. Skaggs dipped back into his gospel bluegrass material for the inspiring "You Can't Shake Jesus," a song he recalled playing at the Garden of Gethsemane while on a tour of Israel.

The Cabin stage "in-betweener" set from Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen was anything but filler, with current IBMA banjo player of the year Michael Munford tearing up a banjo tune so fast and hot it threatened to shake loose the cabin's chinking.

Sam Bush came on strong for his usual Saturday night set, without any of his usual foils such as John Cowan in attendance this year he settled for just an excellent, well paced set showing off all the different styles his music encompasses, from traditional bluegrass to electric blues, reggae and a cover of Stevie Wonder's "Master Blaster."

The first-time combination of David Holt and T. Michael Coleman with Bryan Sutton on the Cabin stage ended up being a very nice tribute to the flatpicking guitar legacy of Doc Watson, who both Holt and Coleman played with frequently.

Headliners Steep Canyon Rangers were in their home state, in their element, and in a groove for much of their set, focusing on the uptempo, original bluegrass that they have perfected over the last 10 years. Steve Martin and Edie Brickell didn't show up to sit in with the band and play songs from their new album together, but when you can get guests such as Peter Rowan, Larry Keel and Bryan Sutton, there's no reason to complain.

The last day of MerleFest, Sunday, is a great opportunity to catch up on areas such as the traditional tent and the Creekside gospel sets including one from the Nashville Bluegrass Band. Merle Haggard is on tap as the closing headliner, but there's still plenty of music before then.

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