Wilkes Community College, Wilkesboro
Friday, April 24

“For four kids from North Carolina, it’s a dream to play MerleFest,” said Joseph Terrell, of Chapel Hill’s Mipso, during the quartet’s 25-minute set on Friday night. Several people stood and cheered for the young group, appearing at the festival for the first time.

Mipso struck a chord with the notoriously picky MerleFest audience, which showed the emerging outfit the same respect that the members of Mipso have seen their own heroes earn while attending the festival. Left with the unenviable task of following the Del McCoury Band and playing just ahead of rehashed Southern rockers The Marshall Tucker Band, they took full advantage of their time in the spotlight.

Throughout the day, that same embrace of heritage—of honoring those who provided the building blocks for the festival’s past—were on proud display. Before a set on the Hillside Stage, Jerry Douglas joined Sam Bush for a brief tune to honor Tut Taylor, the MerleFest hero and Dobro master who passed away just weeks before this year’s festival. To honor his memory and that of another Merlefest pillar, John Hartford, they played “Steam Powered Aereo Plane,” a classic that featured Taylor’s distinct flat-picking style. The Earls of Leicester quickly proved why they were the 2014 Grammy Award winner in the bluegrass category. Led by the vocals of Shawn Camp, the group scorched through an extended set of Flatt & Scruggs classics. They earned a standing ovation after their hour-long set flew past.

As for the “traditional plus” side of the festival, Friday’s highlight emerged as Southern California’s Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys. The band rarely makes an appearance in North Carolina anymore, but with their easy charm, the rockabilly hall of famers won over the late-morning crowd. I can’t recall ever seeing people being sung from their seats and dancing at MerleFest before noon.

Peter Rowan, one of just a handful of Merlefest performers who have played the festival each year, rounded out my day. With a new variation of his bluegrass band in tow, Rowan held down the Traditional Tent with standards that form the core of bluegrass—“Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Uncle Pen,” “Walls of Time” and so on. The standout moment came when he dedicated “Righteous Pathway” to 88-year-old Southwestern fiddler Tex Logan. His group delivered a stirring version of the Stanley Brothers classic.

The festival grounds were crowded Friday. Given the rainy weather forecast for the reminder of the weekend, that wasn’t too surprising. But the headlining likes of The Avett Brothers and Dwight Yoakam should offer ample enticement for people to brave the elements the rest of the weekend—and hopefully catch bright young locals like Mipso in the process.

Sam Bush & Jerry Douglas, “Steam Powered Aero Plane”

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Earls of Liecester, “Get in Line Brother” and “I’ll Go Stepping Too”

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