This year's event - April 28-May 1 in Wilkesboro, N.C. - has plenty of both and with a full four days of music it can be daunting to decide who to check out, and when. Country Standard Time's Kevin Oliver will be on site covering the festival, and here is his preview of 10 bands you might not know about, but need to put on your list to check out while you are there, in order of appearance.
3:45-4:15 p.m. Thursday, Cabin Stage
One of the advantages of playing MerleFest for many developing bands is that you get multiple sets over a day or two, creating word of mouth within the festival grounds and growing your audience along the way. Asheville, N.C. progressive bluegrass band Tellico is only appearing for this one brief set, however, so be sure not to blink. Formed by members of MerleFest veterans Dehlia Low and Town Mountain, the group's 2015 album "Relics and Roses," is a delightful spin on mountain music.
Foghorn String Band
10:45-11:15 a.m. Friday, Traditional Stage
12:15-1 p.m. Friday, Hillside Stage
2-2:45 p.m. Friday, Watson Stage
Self-described as "ass kicking, redneck string band music," the Portland, Ore.-based Foghorn String Band aren't as outlandish as that might suggest. A true string band, they play old time music the way one imagines it has been shared for over a century on back porches and mountain enclaves, with energy, soul and conviction.
The Whiskey Gentry
1:30-2:15 p.m. Friday, Hillside Stage
4:30-5:15 p.m. Friday, Walker Center
Husband and wife Jason Morrow and Lauren Staley of The Whiskey Gentry were finalists in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest a couple of years back; this time around they bring the rest of the band for two sets. A rip-roaring live show along with two John Keane-produced albums has earned them a reputation for bluegrass and country-tinged Americana that rocks with near-punk fervor.
Mike Farris and the Roseland Rhythm Revue
6:30-7:30 p.m. Friday, Watson Stage
Probably the biggest name on this list, but still one that many are unfamiliar with, Mike Farris has enjoyed a long solo career after a brief fling with mainstream rock 'n' roll in the Screaming Cheetah Wheelies. His own material mixes with classic soul and and R&B his considerable vocal pipes can wrap around with ease. If you saw him guest with The Waybacks on the Hillside Album Hour a few years ago, you'll know what is meant when he has a full-scale show band behind him. Farris' only set promises to be a highlight of the weekend.
9:45-10:30 a.m. Saturday, Americana Stage
2-2:45 p.m. Saturday, Walker Center
Bluegrass is experiencing a youth movement of sorts, and Barefoot Movement are right in the middle of the new crop of acts combining traditional sounds with contemporary energy and songwriting style, including surprisingly diverse tones and influences to create a unique acoustic signature sound.
Karl Shiflett & Big Country Show
10:45-11:30 a.m. Saturday, Creekside
If traditional bluegrass and bluegrass gospel is your thing, it doesn't get much better than Karl Shiflett and company. Firmly rooted in the Osborne Brothers and Stanley Brothers style that defined bluegrass bands early on and was as much classic country as it was bluegrass, Big Country Show is as much a description of what they do as it is the name of the band.
Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys
1:15-1:45 p.m. Saturday, Cabin Stage
6:30-7:15 p.m. Saturday, Americana Stage
Right at that intersection where bluegrass, folk, pop, jazz and more combine sits this Michigan band. Lindsay Lou's jazzy voice brings to mind Lake Street Dive while the ghost of Tony Trischka haunts the newgrass backing of the rest of the band, and their performances are nothing short of spellbinding. Their main set will be on the Americana stage, an appropriate venue for an act that personifies everything that all-encompassing genre tag implies.
Penny & Sparrow
10-10:45 a.m. Saturday, Hillside Stage
4-4:45 p.m. Saturday, Americana Stage
The Texas duo of Andy Baxter and Kyle Jahnke practice gentle acoustic heart-on-the-sleeve confessional singer-songwriter fare in the style of Storyhill, Griffin House and others. The pure simplicity of the arrangements and the way their voices intertwine in harmony combine for a memorable effect that's emotionally vulnerable but strongly present.
Zoe & Cloyd
11:30 a.m.-12:15 p.m. Saturday, Walker Center
5:15-6 p.m. Saturday, Americana Stage
Two former members of MerleFest veterans Red June, husband and wife duo Natalya Zoe Weinstein and John Cloyd Miller, the Asheville residents have broad musical backgrounds in bluegrass, classical music, and more that comes out in their 2015 debut as a duo, "Equinox." They recently placed first in the duo category at the FreshGrass Festival in Massachusetts.
Jonathan Byrd and the Pickup Cowboys
10-10:45 a.m. Sunday, Hillside Stage
12:45-1:30 p.m. Sunday, Americana stage
North Carolina songwriter Jonathan Byrd has performed and recorded both solo and with various full band configurations, and while his songwriting can be concise, cutting, and topical all at once it is with a like-minded group of musicians that his songs really shine, taking the fuller, yet still country-folk based sound and creating a more evocative context.
The entire list of performers is at the MerleFest web site.