MerleFest has strong start

Posted: Friday, April 25, 2014 1:53 pm | Updated: 1:56 pm, Fri Apr 25, 2014.

A diverse lineup that included country music star Alan Jackson drew one of the largest opening day turnouts in MerleFest’s 27-year history, setting the stage for a weekend with a record 130-plus performing artists amid clear skies and moderate temperatures.

MerleFest Director Ted Hagaman said the numbers haven’t been crunched yet, but it’s safe to say the turnout Thursday for MerleFest 2014 was among the three or four largest.

Up to this point, the record has been held by opening day of MerleFest 2011, when the Zac Brown Band performed. Prior to that, the biggest opening day turnout was in 2000, when Willie Nelson performed. MerleFest 2008 also had a big opening.

Hagaman said he heard comments about how engaged fans appeared to be with the music and their strong reactions Thursday.

All in all, he said, it was a very smooth opening day.

Jackson closed out the opening night on the Watson Stage by performing most of the songs from his 15th and latest studio album, “The Bluegrass Album.”

On stage with him were Scott Coney, who plays guitar on Jackson’s country band, assembled bluegrass greats Sammy Shelor on banjo, Tim Dishman on bass, Rob Ickes on resonator guitar, Tim Crouch on fiddle and Ronnie Bowman and Don Rigsby for harmony vocals on “The Bluegrass Album.”

Coney and most of these were on stage Thursday night, plus mandolin player Sierra Hull to fill in for Adam Steffey. Ms. Hull was already well known to MerleFest fans from her past appearances at the festival.

In between a couple of songs, Jackson said he’s been a bluegrass fan since childhood in Georgia and decided to make “The Bluegrass Album” as a tribute to this musical genre.

He said he tried to recycle some of his less successful country songs in a bluegrass format for the album and found it wasn’t an easy thing to do. Jackson said it seemed to work for “Way Beyond the Blue, which he included on the album and performed Thursday night.

The only song he performed that wasn’t on the album was “Dixie Highway,” which was his encore.

Performing on the Watson Stage earlier Thursday were, in order, Josh Farrow. Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice, The Duhks, Scythian and the Carolina Chocolate Drops. The bands represented various musical genres, including traditional bluegrass and high energy “jam grass” and Celtic.

A few highlights for the remainder of MerleFest 2014 include:

• Dr. Ralph Stanley with Ricky Skaggs and Jim Lauderdale on the Watson Stage Saturday;

• the Waybacks again hosting the Hillside Album Hour on Saturday. Every year, a revered or iconic album is performed (but not announced in advance) from start to finish. Many surprise guests will join in the performance.

• Saturday, performances by Dr. Ralph Stanley, Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, Steep Canyon Rangers, Sam Bush Band, Town Mountain, Alison Brown Quartet, Peter Rowan, The Steel Wheels, Della Mae, Claire Lynch Band, Nora Jane Struthers and the Party Line, Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, Niall Toner Band and others.

• Sunday opening with the “Spirit of Sunday” with the Nashville Bluegrass Band and Avett Family Gospel Hour at Creekside Stage. Sunday also features performances by Merle Haggard, Dailey & Vincent with Jimmy Fortune, Jerry Douglas, Deadly Gentlemen, Claire Lynch Band, Jim Lauderdale, Mandolin Orange, Donna the Buffalo, Overmountain Men and more. A blues set Sunday afternoon has Roy Book Binder, Richard Watson,Mitchell Greenhill, Del Rey, Rory Block, Eleanor Ellis and Charles Welch.