WILKESBORO — MerleFest, presented by Window World and scheduled for April 27-30, is bringing two bluegrass legends to the 30th celebration — banjo master Béla Fleck and The Earls of Leicester featuring Jerry Douglas, a supergroup homage to Flatt & Scruggs made up of several of bluegrass’s finest musicians. Both will perform on Saturday.
The inclusion of these two acts underscores MerleFest’s commitment to Doc Watson’s original vision for a “traditional plus” festival, an event that is open to the evolution of tradition and looks for artists that push boundaries, as these performers do. The remainder of the star-packed lineup for MerleFest 2017 includes other artists that embody this crossover, like Zac Brown Band, The Avett Brothers, Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives, Tift Merritt, Leftover Salmon and more.
Born and raised in New York City, Béla Fleck began his musical career playing the guitar. In the early 1960s, while watching “The Beverly Hillbillies,” the bluegrass sounds of Flatt & Scruggs flowed out of the TV set and into his young brain. Earl Scruggs’s banjo style hooked Béla’s interest immediately. “It was like sparks going off in my head,” he later said.
Any world-class musician born with the names Béla (for Béla Bartok), Anton (for Antonín Dvorak) and Léos (for Leoš Janáček) would seem destined to play classical music. Already a powerfully creative force in bluegrass, jazz, pop, rock and world beat, Béla at last made the classical connection with “Perpetual Motion.” This critically acclaimed 2001 Sony Classical recording went on to win a pair of Grammys, including Best Classical Crossover Album, in the 44th annual Grammy Awards. Since 1998, Béla has won 16 Grammy Awards and received 30 nominations. He has been nominated in more different categories than any instrumentalist in Grammy history.
The Earls of Leicester featuring Jerry Douglas have discovered a kind of magic that, when harnessed, allows moments once relegated to memories to roar back to life. Jerry Douglas, widely lauded as today’s finest Dobro player, is a serious Flatt & Scruggs fan, so he brought together a group of superb pickers to pay homage to the legendary duo. The inimitable Douglas remains the band’s producer and Dobroist; blue-ribbon songwriter, singer and producer Shawn Camp still soars on lead vocals and guitar; revered multi-instrumentalist and sideman Jeff White now deftly handles high harmony and mandolin; ace banjoist Charlie Cushman tackles banjo and guitars; top-flight musician Johnny Warren cuts in radiantly on fiddle; and the esteemed Barry Bales, a longtime bandmate of Douglas in Alison Krauss and Union Station, holds magnificently steady on vocals and bass.
With their second album, “Rattle & Roar,” the Earls have conjured up a fresh batch of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs songs, delivered with the Earls’ now signature blend of homage, virtuosity and perspective. As much as the Earls are a reincarnation of a sound that older generations have missed — a bluegrass sound that creates strong flashbacks to a previous time and place — the band is especially interested in reaching new ears. “I hope people who don’t know Flatt & Scruggs hear this and think it’s totally new music,” said Douglas. “Then, I hope they find out what we’re doing and go buy every Flatt & Scruggs record they can find.”
The MerleFest 2017 mobile app and stage schedules will be available on March 1. The app is being offered at no charge to users and features the 2017 lineup and stage schedules, artist biographies, map, announcements, social media links and more. The app allows users to plan for their entire MerleFest experience. Users who currently have the MerleFest mobile app will receive a prompt on their phones to download the 2017 version of the app. The app is compatible with Android and iOS platforms. A bonus for MerleFest fans: once downloaded, the app will be fully functional without having connection to phone service. The current MerleFest 2017 lineup is also online at MerleFest.org/lineup.
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 26. 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.