Must-see fresh faces at MerleFest 2017, band competition returns
WILKESBORO, N.C. (March 14, 2017) For 30 years, MerleFest, presented by Window World, has been known for discovering new talent in American roots music. From Old Crow Medicine Show to Gillian Welch, the Avett Brothers to Tift Merritt, many artists’ careers blossom after their breakout performances at MerleFest, where outstanding talent enthralls the festival’s many music enthusiasts. This year’s celebration, slated for April 27-30, will introduce what Steve Johnson, MerleFest artist relations manager, calls “must-see talent discoveries” made during his travels around the globe this past year. Johnson has identified ten of these innovative artists who will perform at MerleFest 2017.
John Driskell Hopkins – John Driskell Hopkins is best known as a founding member, vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter for the Grammy-winning Zac Brown Band. He has been performing since the ‘90s with Brighter Shade, a rock band he founded. Later, he began songwriting and performing with Zac Brown. Hopkins co-wrote the chart-topping single “Toes” and won a Grammy for Best Country Album with the band for 2013’s “Uncaged.” He also co-wrote “It’s Not OK,” “I Play the Road” and “Nothing” among others. On tour with the Zac Brown Band, Hopkins began as the bass player but now plays the guitar and banjo.
In 2012, he released an original record called “Daylight,” a collaboration with Balsam Range. In 2015, Hopkins released a holiday album, “In the Spirit – A Celebration of the Holidays,” collaborating with the legendary Atlanta Pops Orchestra and featuring guests such as Indigo Girls, Balsam Range, and Laura Bell Bundy. This year, Hopkins brings his band, John Driskell Hopkins Band, for its first MerleFest appearance.
John Driskell Hopkins is also an actor, who graduated from Florida State University with a degree in general theatre in 1993. His first film, “Careful What You Wish For” (2015), starred Nick Jonas, Isabel Lucas, and Paul Sorvino. He was also in the feature film “Adolescence.”
Mipso – Chapel Hill’s indie Americana quartet Mipso – Jacob Sharp (mandolin, vocals), Wood Robinson (bass, vocals), Joseph Terrell (guitar, vocals) and Libby Rodenbough (fiddle, vocals) – is influenced by the contradiction of its progressive home and the surrounding rural southern landscapes. Currently celebrating the release of its fourth album, “Coming Down the Mountain” (April 7, 2017), Mipso ventures further than ever from its string-band pedigree to discover a broader Americana where classic folk-rock and modern alt-country sounds mingle easily with Appalachian tradition. Adding pedal steel, drums, banjo and keyboards to the intimate four-part harmonies and powerful acoustic meld, Mipso’s music is lush and forward moving, with lyrics that sear and salve in turn. Hailed as “hewing surprisingly close to gospel and folk while still sounding modern and secular” (Acoustic Guitar) and recently recognized by Rolling Stone as a favorite 2016 festival performance, Mipso brings a distinctly unique sound – full of wistful beauty, hopeful undercurrents and panoramic soundscapes.
Mipso’s third album release, 2015’s “Old Time Reverie” (2015), shot up the Billboard charts, landing at No. 1 on the Billboard Bluegrass Chart and in the Top 25 of the Billboard Heatseekers Chart. The album was named among the Best Records of the Year by The Guardian for the band’s “aptitude for stunning harmonies” and for its “lush and moving songs.” Mipso’s earlier albums were “long, long, gone” (2012) and “Dark Holler Pop” (2013).
Sierra Hull – Singer, mandolinist, and former child prodigy Sierra Hull signed with Rounder at age 13 and distinguished herself by becoming the first bluegrass musician to receive a Presidential Scholarship to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. Last year she released “Weighted Mind,” her first new album in five years. Though she is best known for her work as a mandolin player, Hull reveals in these songs her abundant gifts as a composer and lyricist.
Themes of loss and restoration run through the album, starting with the muscular opening number, “Stranded,” and continuing on the stirring “Compass,” on which she declares, “I’ve thrown away my compass, done with the chart … I’ll just step out, throw my doubt into the sea, for what’s meant to be will be.” The gentle, dissonant title track ponders existential questions, while the haunting “Birthday” and “Fallen Man” offer somber reflections on strained relationships and impossible choices. The album closes on an optimistic note with the sweetly assertive “I’ll Be Fine” and the uplifting, philosophical closer, “Black River.” Béla Fleck, Rhiannon Giddens, Alison Krauss and Abigail Washburn, all guest on this track, in which Hull reflects, “A thousand years is but a day, and maybe in a thousand years, I’ll find my way.”
I Draw Slow – Dublin roots band I Draw Slow will be releasing the highly anticipated “Turn Your Face to the Sun” (Compass Records) on April 21. The band has exclaimed that it will be its best recording yet. Releases “White Wave Chapel” (2014) and “Red Hills” (2011) were all the buzz at home and overseas with their unique sound, bringing together Irish tradition with modern Americana while staying rooted in the old-time style of Appalachia. The band’s impact abroad is redrawing the map for these Irish/Americana songwriters.
The UK press describes I Draw Slow as “American top league equivalents,” destined “to blow the opposition away,” drawing favorable comparisons with Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss. While filling the airwaves on tastemaker stations at home and abroad, has played to audiences in the UK, Germany, Denmark, Belgium, performed at illustrious North American festivals including MerleFest, Pickathon, Wintergrass, RockyGrass, Grey Fox, Red Wing, Edmonton Folk Fest, Sisters Folk Festival and featured on Mountain Stage.
I Draw Slow is a five-piece outfit comprised of vocals, guitar, fiddle, banjo and double bass. Holden siblings Dave (guitar) and Louise (vocals) have been writing together for two decades. In 2008, the pair teamed up with Adrian Hart (violin), Colin Derham (clawhammer banjo) and Konrad Liddy (double bassist) to form I Draw Slow.
Megan Nash – In a Canadian music scene that continues to sprawl out like the prairies she calls home, Megan Nash consistently stands out from the crowd. Whether it be for her powerful, one-of-a-kind voice, her deeply personal and insightful songs, or her unapologetically open and honest personality, she makes an impression upon everyone who hears her. Touring across Canada and beyond, Nash, who calls the rural Saskatchewan area of Treaty 4 home, has been steadily connecting with listeners of all ages for the past three years. She is a performer who commands your attention, haunting your soul and gently searing a stamp on your heart. Recorded in a 100-year-old church on the prairies, her most recent album, “Song Harvest Volume One,” is made up of seven solo songs steeped in prairie longing. The lead single from the record, “Deer Head,” earned her a nomination for Best Songwriter of the Year at the 2016 Western Canadian Music Awards (WCMA). Currently hard at work on a follow-up, full-band record, Nash shows no signs of slowing down. A strong female artist who regularly draws comparisons to such giants as Neko Case and Stevie Nicks, Nash’s powerful music will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come.
Ken Tizzard – Very few Canadian musicians have had as fascinatingly diverse a career as Ken Tizzard. In over two decades as a professional musician, Tizzard can claim many achievements. He was the charismatic bassist in top Canadian rock bands The Watchmen and Thornley. (Tizzard is featured on six gold and platinum records by Thornley.) He has received numerous Juno nominations and MuchMusic Awards. And, he has licensed songs to such TV shows as “CSI” and “Fashion Television.” He is now considered an eloquent roots-based singer/songwriter and guitarist with a prolific solo career.
Wearing his rock ‘n roll hat, Tizzard has toured internationally, appeared on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” and played major venues such as The Air Canada Centre. When he puts on his cowboy hat, Tizzard can be spotted performing his original material, solo or with a band, for a loyal and growing audience in pubs, clubs and concert halls across Canada.
There is a soul-baring lyrical honesty to the material on his album “No Dark No Light.” The majority of the songs are focused upon his own emotions and experiences or those of close friends, but in true folk music tradition; he also creates characters and stories. He takes those songs just as seriously, striving to imbue them with real authenticity.
Chris Jones and the Night Drivers – Whether it’s in the studio or on stage, Chris Jones & The Night Drivers are making some of the most distinctively elegant yet driving music (to be heard anywhere) today. And, they are delivering it with a unique blend of dry wit, emotional authenticity and broad humor that has won the loyalty of a growing number of fans across the country, from MerleFest to California’s Huck Finn Jubilee, and around the world. Steve Martin referred to The Night Drivers as “… some of the best players in bluegrass! Chris Jones’ voice is there with the great masters.” Americana artist Jim Lauderdale said of Chris, “He continues to have one of the most distinctive and best voices in music, period.”
Front Country – Don’t ask members of Front Country what kind of music they play. Just listen. What started as a group of friends playing bluegrass in San Francisco’s Mission District has morphed into a touring powerhouse of song and sound, transcending their humble string band roots. Front Country’s dynamic instrumental textures take flight with grace and gravitas while rooted in the relentlessly soulful vocals of lead singer/songwriter Melody Walker. Along with mandolinist Adam Roszkiewicz, guitarist Jacob Groopman, violinist Leif Karlstrom and bassist Jeremy Darrow, this quintet has been called “passionately intoxicating” and “orchestral,” and Melody’s bluesy vocals have been described as “rafter-shaking.” Seldom traditional, always original, Front Country’s new album, “Sake of the Sound,” is out now.
Locust Honey – As Locust Honey, based in Nashville, Chloe Edmonstone and Meredith Watson bring their experience in old-time, bluegrass and pre-war blues to both their original material and the traditional songs and tunes of the American Southeast. With a rotating instrumentation of fiddles, open-back and resonator banjos, and acoustic and resonator guitars, they set an emphasis on lively arrangements that showcase their signature vintage vocal harmonies. Joined by John Miller (The Fox Hunt, The Hackensaw Boys) on upright bass, they have been touring the U.S., U.K. and Ireland since 2012.
Their original song, “When the Whiskey’s Gone,” was featured in the 2014 film “Time Out of Mind,” starring Richard Gere and directed by Oren Moverman. A second unreleased original will be featured on the soundtrack of the 2017 film “The Dinner” by the same writer/director. Locust Honey’s record “Never Let Me Cross Your Mind” debuted to critical acclaim in 2014 and remained in the Top 10 on the Folk DJ Charts for four months. Subsequently released in the U.K. and Ireland, it was chosen as one of the best country albums of 2016 by The Telegraph in London.
Mark Bumgarner – He’s a son of the South, but Mark Bumgarner‘s musical influences span the American landscape, from the traditional sounds of the Appalachian Mountains to the West Coast country and folk rock of the 1960s and ‘70s. Mark has spent the last 30 years performing with several national and regional touring bands, including the Nashville-based Jubal Foster. His musical style is a blend of roots country, bluegrass and rockin’ hillbilly blues that is true Southern Americana.
Mark’s work continues to demonstrate his balance as an artist, musician and songwriter. His credits include three self-produced album projects, with a fourth expected in early 2017. These projects display Mark’s talent as a songwriter, as well as his ability to find the right material and give it his own special touch. This too is evident in his live performances. His dynamic delivery as a vocalist and guitarist is a combination of both power and subtlety. His experience and engaging style connects him to his audience, whether it is on a large festival stage or in an intimate club, listening room or coffeehouse. In addition to performing at this year’s festival, Mark will again act as emcee for the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest and the MerleFest Band Competition.
Many new acts will face off at this year’s MerleFest Band Competition, which will take place on the Plaza Stage on Saturday. MerleFest 2017 invited talented bands from across the country to perform for 15 minutes each in the band competition. This year’s volunteer judges are musicians Mark Bumgarner, who will also serve as emcee, noted folk singer Si Kahn, and members of The Local Boys band. The band contest winner will be announced following the last performance and will perform on the Watson Stage on Saturday at 4:30 p.m.
The bands participating in the competition are Counterclockwise String Band, Flando Calrissian, Dear Brother, Virgil Harden & The Appalachian Countdown, Nate Harris and Spice Creek Ramblers, The Hook & Bullet, Roanoke, ShadowGrass, Surry Line, Swift Creek, The Trailblazers, and Uncle Joe and The Shady Rest.
Tickets for MerleFest 2017 are on sale now and may be purchased at MerleFest.org or by calling 1-800-343-7857. An advance ticket discount runs through April 27, 2017. Gate pricing begins on the first day of the festival.
MerleFest’s lineup reflects the diversity and quality of performers who are the hallmark of the festival. MerleFest is known for its unique mix of traditional, roots-oriented music from the Appalachian region, including bluegrass and old-time music, Americana, blues, country, Celtic, Cajun, cowboy, zydeco, rock and many other styles that the late Doc Watson referred to as “traditional plus.” The developing lineup is viewable at MerleFest.org/lineup.
About MerleFest – MerleFest, considered one of the premier music festivals in the country, is an annual homecoming of musicians and music fans held on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. MerleFest was founded in 1988 in memory of renowned guitarist Eddy Merle Watson, the son of the late American music legend Doc Watson. MerleFest is a celebration of “traditional plus” music, a unique mix of music based on the traditional, roots-oriented sounds of the Appalachian region, including bluegrass and old-time music and expanded to include Americana, country, blues, rock and many other styles. The festival hosts a diverse mix of artists on its 13 stages during the course of the four-day event. The annual event has become the primary fundraiser for the WCC Foundation, funding scholarships, capital projects and other educational needs.
About Window World – Window World, headquartered in North Wilkesboro, N.C., is America’s largest replacement window and exterior remodeling company, with more than 200 locally owned offices nationwide. Founded in 1995, the company sells and installs windows, siding, doors and other exterior products, with a total of over 13 million windows sold to date. Window World is an ENERGY STAR partner, and its window products have earned the Good Housekeeping Seal for nine consecutive years. Additionally, through its charitable foundation Window World Cares, the Window World family provides funding for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where it was named New Corporate Partner of the Year in 2010. Since its inception in 2008, the foundation has raised over $7 million for St. Jude. Window World Inc. also supports the Veterans Airlift Command, a non-profit organization that facilitates free air transportation to wounded veterans and their families. For more information, visit www.WindowWorld.com or call 1-800 NEXT WINDOW. For home improvement and energy efficiency tips, décor ideas and more, follow Window World on Facebook and Twitter.