Live Review: MerleFest 2018, Thursday

One of the largest music festivals in the world, MerleFest, took place last weekend, here in North Carolina…

MerleFest may have gotten off to a rainy start but the lineup and performances happening on Thursday kept everyone entertained, warm and ready to party. The annual festival regularly draws crowds over 75,000 to the rural northwestern North Carolina town of Wilkesboro (population 3,554) and the city along with Wilkes Community College are both inviting hosts.

Beginning with parking and shuttle rides from off site locations, the volunteers manning lots and bus drivers greet every guest with a smile and warm welcome. Most in attendance and everyone working appeared to be in a great mood – music has that capability and live performances kicking off an epic weekend in the mountains for MerleFest was guaranteed not to disappoint.

Gates opened at 2:30pm on Thursday for Day 1 and the crowds pouring into the venue were greeted by the Kruger Brothers on the Watson Stage (main stage) with a set beginning just thirty minutes later. The international born brothers (Switzerland) settled in Wilkesboro and have become an iconic group within the folk genre.

One patron in attendance referred to MerleFest as the “Coachella” of Bluegrass but the lineup often features groups and performances from a variety of musical genres – though most do possess folk or bluegrass origins and tendencies.

The Thursday lineup took a turn south for Texas following the opening set of MerleFest as each of the next three performers hail from the Lone Star State. Shinyribs got things going, followed by Kris Kristofferson and Robert Earl Keen before another band with ties to the Texas music industry, The Mavericks, closed out opening day.


If you have never witnessed Shinyribs live, then make it a point to find them wherever they are and go see a show. Just the introduction alone before Kevin Russell comes sashaying onto the stage is worth any price of admission. Known for his flamboyant wardrobe selections, Russell greeted the MerleFest audience with a purple suit and bright pink tie.

While the rains began during their hour long set, it didn’t deter the crowd who was up and dancing along with every beat by the end. Russell, the combination of Shiny Soul Sisters with Tijuana Trainwreck Horns backed by the rest of the band form a funky-roots outfit that entertained with both originals and a few covers.

Kris Kristofferson

The iconic Kris Kristofferson made his MerleFest debut on Thursday night and fans in attendance seemed to genuinely appreciate the contributions to music made from such a legendary superstar.

Backed by The Strangers, Merle Haggard’s original band and son Ben, Kristofferson doled out 18 songs and an encore before calling it a night. A member of country supergroup, The Highwaymen, featuring Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, his original songs and those he wrote have been performed by numerous other artists since their inception.

Kristofferson gave way to Ben Haggard during his father’s “Okie from Muskogee,” much to the delight of the crowd. Ben is a rising star in his own right and playing alongside the storied Kristofferson will only serve to bolster his pedigree.

Kristofferson setlist:
-Shipwrecked in the 80’s
-That’s The Way Love Goes
-Darby’s Castle
-Me and Bobby McGee
-Here Comes That Rainbow
-Help Me Make It Through The Night
-Okie From Muskogee
-Casey’s Last Ride
-Loving Her Was Easier
-Just the Other Side of Nowhere
-Sing Me Back Home
-The Pilgrim
-Jesus Was A Capricorn
-Stay Here And Drink
-Sunday Morning Coming Down
-For The Good Times
-A Moment of Forever
-Why Me

-Please Don’t Tell Me How The Story Ends

Robert Earl Keen

Fellow Texan, Robert Earl Keen was up next on the Watson Stage as both the rain and crowd excitement intensified. Keen managed to transform a valley full of festival goers into what felt like a small listening room with his stories and upbeat songs like, “Hot Corn, Cold Corn” and “Feelin’ Good Again”.

Keen also allowed bassist and songwriter, Bill Whitbeck a.k.a. “Rusty Pliers,” to assist the crowd in spelling New Braunfels, during a performance of “Copenhagen” that he promised a member of the media he would play during his set.

An impressive musical performance came to a rousing conclusion with Keen’s anthem, a finale of “The Road Goes On Forever” that had everyone in attendance up on their feet and in appreciation of both the musical talents of Keen and his band.

Robert Earl Keen setlist:
-Hot Corn
-Feelin’ Good Again
-Twisted Laurel
-If I Were King
-Man Behind Drums
-I Gotta Go

The Mavericks

Finally, the Latin influenced group of Tex-Mex and rockabilly song styles of The Mavericks brought the first night of MerleFest to a close on the main Watson Stage. While performances kept going into the night by other groups on other stages, of which MerleFest has 14, the main events were over.

Off to a rainy beginning, the performances by each of the artists on the main stage were well worth battling the elements and many in the crowd didn’t seem to mind. Preparations were made, tarps were ascended and ponchos were on hand as a majority of the crowd was ready for the MerleFest opening main stage lineup come rain, wind, hail or high water.

And it was well worth the sacrifice.

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