Merlefest organizers this week announced some big additions to the 2018 lineup of the long-running, eclectic-leaning bluegrass-folk-Americana-and-beyond music festival.
Elephant Revival, Rhiannon Giddens, Rodney Crowell and Shinyribs are new names added to the impressive list of performers. Songwriting giant Kris Kristofferson was announced last month as part of the bill of over 75 artists for the event, which will take place April 26 to 29 next year. Other names recently added to the lineup are Alabama-born country singer Jamey Johnson; Texas singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen; bicoastal acoustic Americana trio the Devil Makes Three; North Carolina’s own Balsam Range, a bluegrass quintet from Haywood County; Tennessee gospel quartet the McCrary Sisters; singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale, whose songs have been recorded by George Strait, Elvis Costello, Blake Shelton, the Dixie Chicks and many others; venerable gospel legends the Blind Boys of Alabama and others were part of the announcement as well.
The 2018 festival will be the 31st annual Wilkesboro event, which was founded to honor the life of guitarist Merle Watson, son of guitarist Doc Watson, both of whom were bluegrass and folk legends.
Elephant Revival, among that list of new names on the bill, are an eclectic ensemble engaged in cross-cultural fusion drawing on strands of gypsy, Celtic and American folk traditions. On any given song the Colorado-based, multi-instrumentalist quintet might deploy brass, West African percussion, washboard, pedal steel, a variety of guitars, fiddle, cello, banjo, mandolin and tight vocal harmonies. The band’s border-jumping musical openness nicely reflects the spirit of the festival.
“For over 30 years, one of the major factors that has built and sustained MerleFest has been the quality of the artists and performances that our guests see over the four-day festival,” festival director Ted Hagaman said in a press release. “People truly feel that the festival is a great value and that is why music fans and families return year after year. We feel that the 2018 lineup again reflects the diversity and quality of performers and we look forward to another successful festival in April.”
Separately, Giddens, Crowell and Shinyribs also admirably demonstrate the ways that American music has synthesized — generally more successfully than our civic life seems to — so many of this vast country’s tributary streams. Giddens, of course, is from the area (she was born in Greensboro) and has made a career excavating, among other things, the ways that African-American and African-derived traditions have infused with musical styles such as bluegrass. She has performed with the Grammy-award winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, as a part of the all-star Dylan interpreters, the New Basement Tapes, and on her folk-gospel-protest-infused solo records. Crowell is a country artist with ties to some pivotal figures in country music: he worked with Emmylou Harris for a time, was married to Rosanne Cash, and has had songs recorded by Alan Jackson, Keith Urban, Tim McGraw and numerous others. Shinyribs were once the side-project of Kevin Russell of the Gourds, an ecstatic Austin, Texas, based band that mixes a bit of Butthole Surfers and 13th Floor Elevators, to name two other bands from the Lone Star State capital that blended psychedelia and barroom raucousness in varying ratios. Shinyribs thread a little swamp funk into the wide-eyed vibe.
But let’s go back to that other name on the 2018 MerleFest bill: Kris Kristofferson. OK, yeah, everybody knows “Me and Bobby McGee.” It’s a classic, and justly so. It yields new colors in many of the dozens of covers that artists have done it over the decades. Kristofferson would be famous if he had only written that single song. He’s revered, though, for his dozens and dozens of country standards, a list of classics that puts him in league with Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan or — depending on how you slice and dice the Great American Songbook — George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer. When music writers David Cantwell and Bill Friskics-Warren assembled their excellent 2003 book Heartaches by the Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles, the pair chose a song written by Kristofferson, “Help Me Make It Through The Night” (as recorded by Sammi Smith) as the peak achievement in country music singles. They also included numerous other Kristofferson-penned tunes (in addition to his work as a performer and producer) on their big list.
If you were making an informal tally of monumental songs that Kristofferson had written, it might start like this: “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” “For the Good Times,” “Lovin’ Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again),” “The Taker,” “Best of All Possible Worlds,” “Epitaph,” and so on. Independent of his illustrious songwriting career, Kristofferson has had a noteworthy life as an actor and activist. Before any of that, he was a Rhodes scholar in England. It’s hard to imagine, but Kristofferson, once he decided to pursue music, was evidently working as a janitor at the studio in Nashville in 1965 when Dylan and came to Music City to record Blonde on Blonde.
This is all just to say that legends like Kristofferson, 81, will be converging on Wilkesboro in April of next year. MerleFest is always worth attending, but the 2018 lineup could be one for the scrapbook. With the holidays around the bend, tickets for the festival might make a special gift for any music fanatics in your life.
Tickets for next year’s festival may be purchased at www.MerleFest.org or by calling 1-800-343-7857. MerleFest offers a three-tiered pricing structure and encourages fans to take advantage of the extended early bird discount. Early Bird Tier 1 tickets may be purchased from Nov. 14 to Feb. 18, 2018; Early Bird Tier 2 tickets from Feb. 19 to April 25. Tickets will be sold using Tier 3 pricing at the gate during the festival.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.