The 10 Best Acts We Saw at MerleFest 2022: Rissi Palmer, Tenille Townes, 49 Winchester + More
You know a festival is special when everyone you speak to in attendance has been coming for 10 years or more. Such was the case this past weekend at MerleFest, which has celebrated the life and legacy of Doc Watson’s son, Eddy Merle Watson, annually since 1988 with old-time, classic country, bluegrass, folk and gospel, blues and other “traditional plus” music.
After being pushed to fall 2021 due to COVID, the event returned to its conventional last weekend in April with a lineup that featured headliners such as Emmylou Harris, Josh Turner, Old Crow Medicine Show and The Wood Brothers.
With four action-packed days of music spread across 12 stages, MerleFest’s 34th iteration had something to scratch everyone’s musical itch. From veterans like aforementioned Old Crow Medicine Show, to new kids on the block like Tenille Townes and 49 Winchester, here’s the 10 best things we saw at MerleFest 2022.
On the cusp of releasing Fortune Favors The Bold — their first album on New West Records, due out on May 13 — Southwest Virginia’s 49 Winchester made a splash in their MerleFest debut with a soulful blend of Appalachian rock and roll. The group, led by singer-songwriter Isaac Gibson, sampled several songs from the record including moonshine making ditty “Hillbilly Daydream,” bar-busting ballad “Last Call” and breakup saga “Second Chance.” Interspersed between them were older fan favorites like “Hayes, Kansas,” “Chemistry” and rollicking set closer “Long Hard Life.”
Will Easter & The Nomads
A runner-up in the festival’s band competition, Will Easter & The Nomads floored early arrivers to the Hillside Stage on day four of the event with an upbeat mix of country, rock and bluegrass music. The Boone, N.C. based group got the opportunity to kick off the festival’s final day after band competition winners The Burnett Sisters Band & Colin Ray were unable to make their spotlight set. They ran with the opportunity and didn’t disappoint, ripping through poetic originals “Carolina Home” and “Blue Ridge Windowsill” that illustrate his adoration for his home state along with a cover of Doc Watson’s “Momma Don’t Allow No Music,” the latter of which brought the crowd to its feet.
Durand Jones & The Indications
On Thursday evening, Durand Jones & The Indications delivered an infectious blend of modern day R&B on the Watson Stage. The band’s easygoing groove left the audience moving and swaying like tree branches in the wind as Jones and drummer Aaron Frazier— who’s 2021 debut album Introducing…, produced by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, received rave reviews—traded vocal duties, leaving many attendees jaws—mine included—dropped down to the floor in awe. One of the group's most memorable moments came during a bluesy cover of The Beatles' “Don’t Let Me Down,” which in turn sent the crowd into a frenzy.
The Nude Party
Another group born in Boone that lit up the MerleFest stage was Rolling Stones-esque rockers The Nude Party. Formed while its members were attending Appalachian State University, the seven piece band packed the Dance Tent for their one and only performance on the weekend. The band ran through selections from their entire discography during their 45-minute set including rock’n honky tonk number “Nashville Record Co.,” uplifting anthem “Feels Alright,” acid-drenched jam “Astral Man” and the rocking and made for radio “Cheverolet Van.” The band even mixed in a new tune, “Hard Times,” for good measure, with the crowd eating up every bit of it.
Old Crow Medicine Show
First discovered by Doc Watson in 1998 while busking at the fountain on the campus of Wilkes Community College, Old Crow Medicine Show surprised attendees with an impromptu set at the same spot on Saturday ahead of their headlining set on the Watson Stage later that evening. A crowd quickly gathered and began throwing dollar bills into guitarist Mason Via’s, further elevating the nostalgic feel of the moment.
It was a great full circle moment to recognize just how far the trailblazing bluegrass band has come in nearly a quarter century. The band further celebrated their progress during their main stage set with a performance of certified platinum hit “Wagon Wheel” with budding roots star Allison Russell by their side.
I’ve long adored Rissi Palmer for her uplifting of Black, Indigenous, and Latinx artists and their musical histories on her radio show Color Me Country, but after seeing her live for the first time at MerleFest I’m now equally mesmerized by her own music as well. Even with drummer Michael Johnson arriving a couple songs into the set Palmer wasn’t faced, delivering profound renditions of originals like her debut single from 2007 “Country Girl” and “Sweet Sweet Lovin.’”
Once he did arrive the trio’s captivating sound, rounded out by guitarist Charles Newkirk, was elevated to even grander heights during performances of “Seeds” — about how people have more in common with one another than they’d like to think and the importance of planting seeds of positivity in the world every day you’re alive — and “Summerville,” a glimmering look back on summer’s spent as a kid with her grandparents in Summerville, Ga.
Perhaps the most heavenly set of the entire weekend came from Grammy-nominated star Allison Russell, who was joined by an all-star band consisting of Joy Clark, Megan McCormick and Chauntee Ross of SistaStrings for the first time since early April when they performed together during the Grammy’s. The joyous reunion didn’t disappoint, with Russell and company tackling hits from her critically acclaimed debut album Outside Child like “Persephone” and “Nightflyer” along with favorites from her time with her other projects like Our Native Daughters’ “You’re Not Alone.” Russell’s music radiates with eternal beauty despite many fof the songs on her new album centering around the sexual abuse and homelessness she experienced as a young child and teenager, showing that even in the darkest times there’s reason to hope and dream.
Merlefest veterans Scythian were hard at work throughout the weekend, playing six sets across three of the festival’s four days. Despite the frequency of their shows, fans packed in tightly to see each one. The band’s shows were by far the most energetic of the entire weekend, with the group constantly hopping around on stage and getting the crowds to dance in unison with them.
One of the most special moments from their busy weekend came during a Friday afternoon set on the Watson Stage when they led the audience in a sing-a-long of “Motherland,” a song about The Ukraine, where brothers and band leaders Danylo and Alexander Fedoryka’s parents immigrated from during World War II. With Ukrainian flags waving in the crowd the band led attendees in singing the song's chorus capped off by the phrase “Na Zdorovie!” meaning “to health,” something that we all wish the best of for those still back in Ukraine fighting off the ongoing Russian invasion.
Fresh off the release of her Masquerades EP, Nashville-by-way-of-Canada country artist Tenille Townes brought a mix of stripped-back and fiery pop-country to her inaugural Merlefest appearance. Townes reflective and introspective songwriting looks deep within, channeling both the good and bad moments of life into musical memories to learn and grow from to become your best self in a complicated world. This sentiment was reflected on an acoustic version of “Jersey On The Wall”—a song inspired by her time spent playing at schools around Canada, one of which had a jersey on their gymnasium wall of its valedictorian and star basketball player who had recently perished in a tragic car accident. The song also has heavy ties to her faith and questioning its validity, themes that popped up throughout her set including on closing song “Somebody’s Daughter,” a song about seeing a homeless girl on a street corner begging for money and wondering about the circumstances that led her there. Townes even mixed in a cover of U2’s “I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For,” yet another song centered around spirituality and disappointment with the trials and tribulations of life.
The Wood Brothers
Every Wood Brothers concert is filled with warm and welcoming vibes, and their headlining set on Friday evening at Merlefest was no exception. The trio of Jano Rix, Oliver and Chris Wood wasted no time jumping into popular hits like “The Muse,” “Jitterbug Love,” “Alabaster” and “Postcards From Hell, with a sea of people belting out every lyric and dancing along gleefully to each note.
MerleFest is set to return for the 35th year from April 27-30, 2023. For more information visit MerleFest.org.