“Merlefest Traffic – Tune into 1690 AM,” the sign reads as we drive through the Appalachians and into Wilkesboro on this cloudless (and final) day of bluegrass. Inside the festival gates, it’s packed. With Alison Krauss and Union Station headlining today’s events, this is by far the busiest day of the weekend.
We arrive as The Chieftains finish their heart-pounding Celtic set. Continuing the worldly tone, four foreign musicians—who look like pop stars rather than bluegrass pickers (they’ve been taking fashion advice from Nickel Creek’s Chris Thile)—have appeared with fiddle, mandolin, dobro and bass on the cabin stage. The Greencards, comprised of Australian and British expatriates, have a sound that rolls fluidly, leaving behind the rough edges of Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys. After slipping out a few slower tunes, British vocalist and bassist Carol Young softly slurs praise to the previous act—“I wanna know who’s job it is to put us after The Chieftains.” After testing a few new songs and incorporating electric guitar into their music, it’s time for the group to exit, only to a much louder ovation than the unsure one they received upon entry.
Today’s music ebbs and flows, from upbeat to gentle, from gospel to rock. Buddy Miller swaggers onto the stage with an electric and rips out a few fast tunes, to which the crowd members sit and wait expectantly, their looks screaming—“hey, wait just a minute, this isn’t bluegrass!”
“I feel like I’m desecrating a sacred place with all this noise,” says Miller, attentive to their less-than-enthusiastic reaction to his high-energy set. They perk up, though, when tenured Merlefest favorite—and former roommate of Miller’s—Jim Lauderdale walks onstage. The two announce that they’re planning to do an album together later this year. As Miller eases to the end of his Americana, rock, gospel and bluegrass-inflected performance, he cements his place as one of the festival’s best acts.
The crowd around me grows steadily and the sun shines directly overhead for Merlefest first-timer Allison Moorer. Her light-blonde, wavy hair looks angelic, but the minute new boyfriend Steve Earle walks onstage to perform a few duets, it’s clear that Moorer’s showing her rebellious side a little more these days. “We started a lot of ugly talk,” says Moorer about the end of her marriage and her relationship with Earle, “but we’re known for that.” As the two move toward each other mid-song, cameras start flashing all over the place. For a moment, we might as well be on a paparazzi-filled red carpet, not this peaceful little bluegrass fest in the mountains of North Carolina. Moorer’s voice, however, is not overshadowed by the company she keeps. Her songs are brooding and her voice is strong, deep and commanding. She doesn’t need Earle to sing with her, but his presence livens up the crowd.
The sun sets slowly in the west, and the festival-goers have noticeably swelled by the end of Moorer’s set. The final show of the afternoon (the one causing all this foot traffic) is Alison Krauss and Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas. Krauss walks onto the stage and opens with a few numbers from her new album Lonely Runs Both Ways. With a vast body of critically acclaimed work, she and the band have everyone in the audience guessing what they’ll play next. Her quirky sense of humor (including a plea for a child-size Burger King crown that she’s seen floating around the front rows) invokes howls from the audience and her band (who she constantly pokes fun at during her performance). Ending the night with a few numbers from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, Krauss and Union Station frontman Dan Tyminsky conclude the set with “Down to the River” a cappella, leaving a lasting impression of Krauss’s naturally pristine voice.
As we leave the festival, Paste gear in hand, I think we all feel a little more in tune with the serenity bluegrass and Americana music bring to a typically jaded business. As we head back over the mighty Appalachians, one of Krauss’s last tunes of the evening comes to mind. The lyrics return to me, almost bittersweetly, as we leave this beautiful, open land:
I hear you calling
I’m coming back to you one fine day
No need to worry
There ain’t no hurry cause I’m
On my way back to Georgia.”