he answer to "What kind of music do they play at MerleFest?" is the Doc Watson-coined "Traditional plus" that denotes the long-running North Carolina festival's dedication to roots music as well as its willingness to embrace all sizes, flavors and colors of that broad category. On the opening day of this year's MerleFest, that 'plus' portion was in full view for the abbreviated Thursday night schedule.
For the kickoff act, Underhill Rose offered a polished set featuring pristine three-part harmonies and an understated all-acoustic instrumentation. Eleanor Underhill and Molly Rose along with Salley Williamson shone on their MerleFest debut with strong performances including songs from a promised upcoming new album and an uptempo, bluegrass flavored take on "Little House" from 2013's **Something Real**.
Lee Ann Womack brought her considerable voice to bear on a set of honky tonk shuffles, country weepers and a few of her classic hits, such as the inevitable "I Hope You Dance" rendered this day in a tender, sweeping take including an introduction from Womack: "This next song has been played at weddings, funerals and graduations; now it's gonna be played at MerleFest." The solid country set also included a nod to one of Womack's own favorites, Don Williams, in the form of a cover of "Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good."
Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn have both attended and performed at many MerleFests, but this year marked the first time as a duo act. The husband and wife regaled the crowd with humorous asides about their married life between songs, a self-deprecating tactic that cast them as endearing minstrels just sitting down for a spell to play some tunes. The stage was set with more banjos than people, given that Fleck and Washburn were the only performers. Fleck's flawless technique means that the lack of personnel was no handicap, and the couple filled the field with cascading notes on top of rhythms on top of more notes.
Washburn's roots in the old time and folk traditions meant they traveled through some deeply traditional territory including shape note hymnody and Chinese folk songs. Fleck's featured solo section, where he sat away from center stage, was followed by Washburn setting aside her instrument and standing in proximity while singing the traditional music she loves - exhorting the audience to sing along several times and even breaking out in some traditional dancing.
It is a mark of how well Fleck and Washburn have mastered their respective strengths that one never got the sense it was a 'showing off' kind of set, rather the two were simply sharing what they loved to do in the place they love to do it most.
The first bluegrass band of the festival, Larry Stephenson Band, was also celebrating their MerleFest debut, a surprising fact given Stephenson's long tenure in the genre. One of the greatest bluegrass singers of his generation, Stephenson is at his best on bluegrass gospel numbers such as "Pull Your Savior In," currently sitting at the top of the **Singing News** Bluegrass Gospel chart, according to Stephenson's introduction. The band's driving, straight bluegrass sound is anchored by Kenny Ingram on banjo; he got to show his stuff nicely on an instrumental barn burner, "Old Sally Ann."
The members of Hot Rize, including Tim O'Brien, Bryan Sutton and Pete Wernick, have been to so many MerleFests as individuals and with other groups that it's hard to believe their original band Hot Rize last appeared here in 1989. They made up for lost time quickly with a full set of hot newgrass that saw all the members spotlighted, although O'Brien took the majority of the lead vocal turns.
Wernick is a familiar sight here via his annual Banjo Camp, but hearing him on the instrumental "Sky Rider" was a nice reminder of his own talent on display. Taking full advantage of their return, the alter ego honky tonk act Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers (the members of Hot Rize in full cowboy shirt/hat getups) put in an appearance for part of the evening, to the delight of the crowd.
Headliners Trampled By Turtles may have been playing during the coldest part of the day for festival-goers, but one wouldn't have known it from watching the dancing forms in the dark. The Minnesota band commented at one point that it had been snowing when they left home, so it felt pretty warm here to them. The band's playing was plenty hot, ripping through song after song in such breakneck manner that it all began to run together a bit too much, unfortunately.
Friday's lineup promises more on the diverse side, from the harder rock of Black Cadillacs to lighter acoustic fare from Stray Birds. MerleFest mainstay Sam Bush will be up on the Watson Stage later in the evening, and other favorites such as Black Lillies and The Honeycutters will perform.