The 31st incarnation of MerleFest looks to be a special one, with a spectatcular lineup of some very recognizable names. It's a long list, and there are always some artists who might escape a festivalgoer's attention. I've put the spotlight on nine of them. (How did I come up with nine? Well, I originally had 18, I cut it in half.) The performers identified below are many shades of wonderful and represent the diversity of roots music. Plus, this year MerleFest has added something new, which I've highlighted at the column's end.
Here, in chronological order, along with when and where they'll be performing, are folks you do not want to miss.
Shinyribs, Thursday, Watson Stage, 4:15 p.m.
Shinyribs is more than frontman Kevin Russell (formerly of the Gourds); it's an octet that immerses you into a river of country-soul, swamp-funk, and tickle. A Shinyribs show is an exaltation of spirit. You'll want to get up and shimmy shimmy shake shake during their belly-laughing, soul-singing, song-slinging, down-home house party. Ask anyone who saw them there two years ago.
Lindsay Lou: Friday, Hillside Stage, 11 a.m.
Lindsay Lou's voice floats over the deep groove of her band with an effortlessness that ranges from a lullaby to a sorrowful moan. No doubt she'll be concentrating on songs from her new album, Southland, released earlier this month. It examines the emotions and complex themes of our changing times.
Hubby Jenkins: Friday, Traditional Stage, 3 p.m.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Jenkins began as a busker playing on the sidewalks and subway platforms of New York City. It was not long before he found his calling: weaving the threads of African American history, with fiddle and banjo, through country blues, ragtime and traditional jazz. Since 2010 he has been a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and is in Rhiannon Giddens' band. (Also, he's part of the Doc and Merle Watson Performing Arts Showcase on Friday at the Austin Stage, 9:30 a.m. to 1:45 p.m.)
Brandy Clark: Friday, Watson Stage, 3:15 p.m.
"Ain't we all the stars playing the leading part in our own soap opera?" Clark makes this acute observation from the get-go on her second album. It also demonstrates that her first album, the award-winning 12 Stories, was just the beginning. With her just-released Live from Los Angeles album, Clark shows that she can engage an audience with stories as well as great songs. She is the brightest talent to emerge from straight country music in a generation.
Town Mountain: Saturday, Hillside Stage, 12:30 p.m.
I have seen this band many times, and while there are a couple of bigger names out there, this Asheville group is the most exciting bluegrass band to come along in a long time. They play a nice blend of the traditional with a raw, challenging energy that's good for whatever ails you. (Also, Saturday, 7:45 p.m., Dance Stage.)
Richie & Rosie: Saturday, Traditional Stage, 1 p.m.
Before joining forces, they were already well-established within the traditional and neo-traditional community. While still in high school, Rosie Newton joined the Mammals, and since has toured with nearly everyone, including the Duhks. Richie Stearns was a founding member of Donna the Buffalo and the Horseflies, and has played with everyone from Bela Fleck to David Byrne. Together, she on the violin and he on the banjo/guitar, they make soulful traditional music that transcends any preconceptions you may have.
My Bubba: Saturday, Watson Stage, 1:45 p.m.
This Scandinavian folk duo makes soft, lilting music that is as playful as it is powerful. NPR's Bob Boilen said of them, “It's so lovely to hear voices unadorned and acoustic. Honestly a night of magic." Of the many times I have seen them, no one has come away unmoved. (Also, Saturday, 5:15 p.m., Americana Stage.)
Dead Horses: Saturday, Americana Stage, 4 p.m.
They present a sound that oscillates between sweeping orchestration and layered finger picking with a mandolin and banjo. No doubt they will be drawing from their excellent new album, My Mother the Moon. Lead singer Sarah Vos’ aching, haunting vocals share tales of working-class men and women in rural America as she fleshes out her own sense of spirituality. (Also, Saturday, 6:30 p.m., Dance Stage.)
We Banjo 3: Sunday, Watson Stage, 10 a.m.
This Irish quartet, that, yes, features three banjos at times, makes a return visit after barnstorming the US festival circuit last year. They have made quite a name for themselves and have a sound and enthusiastic presence that'll rev your engines. I dare you to sit still. (Also, Sunday, 3 p.m., Hillside Stage.)
Evening Sunset Sessions: Friday & Saturday, 6:30 p.m.
For the first time, the festival will provide a viable alternative to seated evening music other than the Watson Stage. There will be Sunset Sessions at the Hillside Stage on these two evenings at 6:30 p.m. The Devil Makes Three plays on Friday, and on Saturday it's Elephant Revival. Both of these first-timers are not only fantastic bands, they'll also play extended sets. I expect some high energy to exude from this stage on the opposite end of campus from the Watson Stage.
Now, take your time and scroll through photos of the performers noted above. Please note the We Banjo 3 on Tour 2017 photo was taken by Martin Ufford, used with permission.