Concert Review: MerleFest 2024

Wyatt Ellis and his band BY MARK DOLEJS For the second year in a row, I had the opportunity to take in MerleFest for their Friday lineup....

Wyatt Ellis and his band

For the second year in a row, I had the opportunity to take in MerleFest for their Friday lineup. This four-day event is loaded with a huge selection of bluegrass, country, blues and Americana artists. In its 36th year, there were more than four dozen sets over ten different stages throughout the day on the campus of Wilkes Community College.

Sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell of Larkin Poe

My favorite set of the day was when Larkin Poe hit the main stage early Friday evening. This sister duo made up of Rebecca and Megan Lovell rocked our faces off with their heavy-hitting take on Southern rock and blues. They opened their set with “Summertime Sunset” with a little bit of the Allman Brothers' “Jessica” thrown in for good measure.

Rebecca Lovell of Larkin Poe

Rebecca Lovell first appeared at MerleFest in 2006, winning a mandolin contest. On this night she returned to her roots, playing mandolin on their first live performance of “Turn The Green Grass Blue.” They ended their set with a powerful performance of “Bolt Cutters & The Family Name.”

Wyatt Ellis

I was also impressed with the young Wyatt Ellis. I had the opportunity to first see Ellis last year at the festival, but now at 15 years old, this guy holds his own no matter who he is playing with on stage. Ellis played several songs from his debut album Happy Valley, including “Blue Smoke” and Wildwood.” He finished out his set as he was joined on stage with mentor Christopher Henry for just one song, playing “Whites Creek,” which they wrote together.


Other artists that I caught included Buffalo Nichols, Chatham County Line, Corey Harris, Kyshona, Nick Shoulders, and The Langan Band. The headliner for the day was the Turnpike Troubadours. These guys are seasoned and put on a great set closing out the night.

Austin and Sarah McCombie of Chatham Rabbits

Three other artists really impressed me. The Chatham Rabbits, made up of husband and wife duo Sarah and Austin McCombie, brought their homespun Americana music to a huge crowd that sang along and seemed to enjoy their enthusiastic stage presence as much as I did. They played a couple new songs, “Facing 29” and “Matador,” and closed their set with fan favorite, “Oxen.”

Bob Margolin

Bob Margolin is a legend who has played on his own through the years and with other well-known artists such as Muddy Waters, who he played with from 1973 to 1980. His blues guitar style is flawless and captivating, while his vocal style is bold and makes you want to hear more. I’ve always wanted to catch one of his shows and so glad I got to see him this day.

Willi Carlisle

One of the last acts of the night was Willi Carlisle. All I can say is WOW! Willi is a 6’4” giant of a storyteller and entertainer. The talent exudes from this guy. Through his set he played a guitar, harmonica, a set of bones, banjo, and an accordion.

Willi’s commentary, both spoken between songs and sung, hinges on his take of the state of things in this world, much like that of the protest singers of the past like Woody Guthrie. But, with the lyrics of his songs you also hear hope and promise for things to come if and when we all realize we need acceptance in this world.

The lyrics of his song “Your Hearts A Big Tent,” go like this:
Ah, The heart's a big tent
Gotta let everybody in
Doesn't matter who they are
If they do right or where they've been
Everybody gets in

Willi Carlisle

At one point, his band left the stage and Willi stood solo and belted out, a cappella, a very moving rendition of Steve Goodman’s “Ballad of Penny Evans.” As he finished out his set for the night, the crowd jumped to their feet for a standing ovation as this big hearted song warrior wore his heart on his sleeve.

If you haven’t been to MerleFest yet, it’s a great way to catch a bunch of different styles of music and some fantastic musicianship.
Photography is an avenue that Mark Dolejs uses to learn about the people and places that cross his path. After more than 30 years as a photojournalist, Mark enjoys concert, macro, and roadside photography. Follow Mark on Instagram at @solidrockpix.

Read Mark's posts here.

Buffalo Nichols

Chatham County Line

Corey Harris

The Langan Band

Turnpike Troubadours


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Strange Carolinas is the Travelogue Of The Offbeat, a wry look at the interesting, unique, and offbeat roadside attractions, people, music, art, food, and festivals in North and South Carolina.


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