The Real Sign of Spring: Music Festivals!

By Jonathan James

For some, the harbingers of spring include the first blooms of the dogwoods, the yellow pollen washing over your car and the first tick bite. But for many of us, the real indicators that spring has arrived are when two North Carolina music festivals publish their performer lineups. We’re speaking of the Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival of Music & Dance in Chatham County and Merlefest in Wilkesboro, NC. Here’s a quick overview of these two festivals:

Shakori Grassroots Festival of Music & Dance (April 19-22)

The 10thSpring edition of Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival kicks off on April 19-22 on 60+ beautiful acres in Silk Hope, NC. The festival is the younger sister of the Finger Lakes Grassroots Festival of Music & Dance that the band Donna the Buffalo puts on each July in Trumansburg, NY. The spring Shakori line-up consists of more than 60 bands on four stages over four days. Bands include host group Donna the Buffalo, Leftover Salmon, Blitz the Ambassador, The Red Clay Ramblers, BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet, Rubblebucket, Suénalo, Preston Frank, The Sim Redmond Band, Elephant Revival, David Wax Museum, Driftwood, Dirty Bourbon River Show, Lydia Loveless, and many more.

Tent camping is free and the food options are outstanding, with everything from Indian samosa’s and Carolina BBQ to crepes and grilled burritos. A tip for you Shakori rookies: don’t miss the Korean short-rib quesadilla and duckfat tater tots from the KoKyu food truck – it will literally change your life.

For families with kids, there are a host of activities for the little ones including crafts, storytelling, climbing wall, a huge Paperhand Puppet Intervention, as well as kid-themed music and dance. Be aware that Shakori is not a “dry” festival (as in no alcohol, like Merlefest), so things can get a bit animated at night.

The vibe is very positive and communal; the music is fantastic; and the setting is idyllic. If that weren’t enough, the Shakori Hills group is a non-profit working to raise the funds from the festival and other events to purchase the land outright where Shakori takes place. To get the full line-up and more information, visit them here:

Merlefest (April 26-29)

Viewed as one of the premiere festivals in America, the Merlefest Music Festival is considerably different that Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival. Started in 1988 by flatpicking Americana legend Doc Watson to commemorate the passing of his son, Eddy Merle Watson, Merlefest attracts more than 80,000 attendees over the four days of the event. Whereas Shakori works hard to be inclusive of all types of music like world, Celtic, blues, Cajun, bluegrass, Merlefest is decidedly “traditional-plus” music, which Doc defines as “traditional music of the Appalachian region plus whatever other styles we were in the mood to play.” This means classic Americana, bluegrass and acoustic music dominate the schedule.

This year’s Merlefest is April 26-29 and takes place on the grounds of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, N.C. This is the 25thedition of the festival and they are pulling out all of the stops. More than 90 artists on 14 stages can be found over the four days, and one of the most magical parts of the festival is the various artist collaboration you see happening. There is a lot of mixing of band members and “special guests” sitting in on different sets. It’s almost as if all of the performers are coming out of hibernation from the winter and Merlefest signals the start of a new touring year. Overall, it has the feel of a musical family reunion. Top acts include Doc Watson, Sam Bush Band, Vince Gill, Marty Stuart & his Fabulous Superlatives, Allison Krauss and Union Station, Enter the Haggis, Los Lobos, Jim Lauderdale, Chris Thile & the Punch Brothers, Steep Canyon Rangers, the Kruger Brothers, the Tony Rice Unit, the Waybacks, the Boxcars, Scythian, Donna the Buffalo, Greencards, Darrell Scott, and more. Merlefest is a major fundraising event for the community college and all of the food/concessions are supplied by area non-profits as well. One of the greatest joys and simultaneous frustrations about Merlefest is how to be in five places at once to hear your favorite performers. Thankfully, many perform several times over the course of the festival. For me, I apply ninja-like planning to map out my viewing schedule in order to maximize my Merlefest experience. But you don’t have to. I know some people who take a very relaxed approach and catch what they catch. Your call. But once you attend Merlefest, I’m sure you’ll be hooked. The level of musicianship is absolutely unbelievable, the festival grounds are beautiful and you’ll feel like part of big, wonderful musical family when you’re there. For more info, visit Merlefest here:

Your friends at WCOM are here to help you attend both festivals this year, with day-passes to both events being given away on-air over the coming weeks. Be sure to listen to the “High Lonesome Radio Hour” (Sundays 11-Noon), “Long Journey Home” (Sundays Noon-1PM), “Taproot Radio” (Mondays 9-10PM),“Roots Rampage” (Tuesdays 7-10PM), “Carrboro Live” (Thursdays 7-8PM), and “Heroes of Hokum” (Saturdays 4-5PM). Tune in to 103.5 FM (or stream the shows live at, listen for the cue, and be the correct caller. It’s that easy. Then you’ll be enjoying spring in a truly North Carolina fashion – listening to great live music outdoors! Good luck everyone!

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