Kelsey Waldon may have small-town roots..but her songs know no bounds.
Stopping in Charlotte on a cold November night, Kelsey Waldon transformed the Evening Muse into a proper country music venue. Supporting her latest album White Noise/White Lines, Kelsey put on a great show.
Born and raised in the rural community of Monkey’s Eyebrow Kentucky, Kelsey is about as real as it gets. In a state that has produced some of the best emerging country artists, Kelsey adds to that list with songs that speak of life experiences and different points of view.
Throughout her set, Kelsey would sometimes give a tiny snippet of the song’s origin, crediting her grandma for one of them. Things like this paint a portrait of a person who has lived. A person that isn’t filling a song quota, or searching for current buzzwords. A true country artist.
Kelsey also brought a killer band with her. One of the best sounding rhythm sections belongs to Nate Felty & Alec Newnam. This only elevated Kelsey’s songs.
The crowd at the Evening Muse was attentive the whole night, with silence coming during the acoustic part of Kelsey’s set. It was a truly authentic country night at the Evening Muse, and I highly recommend going out and supporting this great artist.
If there is one defining trait of this album, it’s the careful craftmanship of each song. With the first song “By Our Design”, one can really get a taste of the sound of this album from a sonic standpoint. The haunting strings that start right on the downbeat give this album a theme of space and nostalgia. Each song on this album could be a title track, something that I find rare in other albums.
My favorite song off of Desert Dove has to be “Two Fools”. It’s a no-frills classic country song dripping in pedal steel that revolves around a complicated relationship. It doesn’t get more country than that.
Give Desert Dove a listen, and get lost in the space & vibes that make this album so special.
A conversation with seasoned bluegrass artist Larry Keel.
Around The Country recently had the chance to interview Larry Keel, a treasured bluegrass musician who’s seen a life of music. Here’s what he had to say:
What got you into flat-picking?
Larry: I grew up in a very musical household, with both sides of my family having been musicians and music-lovers for generations. Very deep mountain traditions from the southwest corner of Virginia – my parents moved up from the family fold in Clintwood, Virginia, up to northern Virginia for work when the coal mines slowed way down in the 1970’s. My father played guitar and banjo and sang, my brother played guitar, my close uncle on my mother’s side played drop-thumb banjo and his band toured around with Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys for years (Ralph Stanley is from Clintwood also). My grandfather Joe Mullins played banjo too… he’s reputed to have ‘penned’ the song “I Got a Mule to Ride,” that Ralph Stanley recorded and performed. There was always music in the house growing up, and musicians were always stopping by. I guess I was just born with it burning in my blood. I wanted to play music just like all the cool, interesting folks that were in my world. My brother bought me a guitar of my own when I was 7 and I’ve never set it down. As far as why I flat pick the guitar, it’s just the way I learned to play since that was the way my brother and dad played… and I loved the flat-picking style that I heard guitar greats like Doc Watson, Clarence White, and Tony Rice playing. That got me really fired up to get technically advanced like they were.
Do you have any memorable shows you’ve played?
Larry: Playing with Tony Rice at MerleFest, playing with my brother Gary at MerleFest, playing Carnegie Hall and Red Rocks Amphitheater. Getting to play with my wife and with friends and musical legends in some of the most beautiful places in the world… and I’m ready for more!
Who are your favorite up-and-coming bluegrass artists?
I always love to learn about the recording process of albums. Tell me about the recording process of your latest album One.
Larry: For this particular project, we recorded it in the basement of my road manager’s house, completely live. The setting was totally comfortable, familiar, relaxed, close to home, etc., so that automatically makes for a really natural and centered feel going into things. The ‘live’ part means that we didn’t use any studio layering of tracks, no separation booths, no gimmicks, no fixes of anything; what we played that day is exactly what you get in each song, as if you were hearing us perform right in front of you like at a live show. That is the truest representation of what we wanted to say with these tunes. Recording the album this way made it genuine and fun for us, hopefully, that comes through to the listener. The other important factor is the finishing stage of the process, which was having the recording mastered by Bill Woolf. The best!
Welcome to this first edition of Quick Takes, where we at Around The Country quickly give you a reason to give an album a listen in 200 words or less.
First things first…If imagery and musicianship are part of your amazing album checklist, then please give this one a listen. Stop reading, and go listen.
Reading into this albums creation, it seems to be spawned out of a need to experiment with new and fresh ideas. None is more apparent than the percussive first track “Rains Come”. Listening back on previous albums, a lot of folk based instrumentation was present. The usual suspects, such as violin and banjo. But this album feels different. It feels vibrant and a little edgy. The folk elements are still there, but I feel they provide a good foundation for other experimental ideas to flourish.
My favorite moments of this album honestly was the way each song started. From the beautiful banjo melody of “Falling”, to killer acapella in “This Year”. Each song kept me guessing..I love that…and don’t get me started on the tasteful slide intro in “Something New”…I replayed that intro a couple times.
Go fill your weekend with this album…and catch The Steel Wheels in your town as they tour the country through November.
Talented Texas transplant Ben Danaher on being a 21st-century songwriter.
If you want to learn about the life of Ben Danaher, all you have to do is listen. Ben credits his dad the late Bob Danaher (an accomplished Texas songwriter in his own right) for the grit and determination he needed to weather the hardships of being a songwriter in the modern age. Hailing from Huffman, Texas, he made the move to Nashville shortly after his brother Kelly was tragically shot and killed in his home. During early writing sessions in Nashville, Ben explains:
I had just moved to Nashville after I had lost my brother, and for a while this was the first time I was talking about it.
A Special Songwriter.
Like many great songwriters, Ben chose to channel his hard life experiences through song, resulting in a raw, unfiltered look into the life of a songwriter. Within Nashville and country music, Ben Danaher is a straight-shooter. His ability to connect with listeners through deeply personal stories puts him on my list of songwriters that I feel are changing the landscape of the songwriting mecca. A part of the reason his album “Still Feel Lucky” has been received so positively.
“Still Feel Lucky” embodies not only personal stories but harrowing truths about Ben’s personal loss and hardships. The album was done live with his touring band. Ben explained the process of recording an album live with his band saying:
we rehearsed the album 6-7 times before recording so everyone really knew their parts. I remember we did around 7 songs in the first day.
Live at The Fillmore
Ben took the stage at The Fillmore in Charlotte opening for Aaron Lewis on his “State I’m In” Tour. Armed with a worn Gibson acoustic, Ben opened up the show to a warm response. The crowd drew ever-increasingly quiet throughout his set, really relating to the hardships he’s faced. Referencing his dad throughout his set really put into perspective the weight his songs carry. The songs don’t reference trends in country music, and they aren’t trying to fill a songwriting quota. I believe crowds want the authentic, relatable nature of country music back. Ben can and does provide that. And people are listening.
Jesse Langlais of Town Mountain & the importance of music among friends.
Travel 125 miles west from Charlotte and you’re bound to start hearing banjos. Talking to Jesse Langlais(Banjo & vocalist for Town Mountain), evidence of this statement could be found at any given street corner in Asheville.
Asheville is Home.
Asheville was home for Town Mountain even before the group had formed. Jesse explained “We had all lived in Asheville long before Town Mountain was a band.” Town Mountain came to be out of the different open jams around Asheville. The culture of Asheville lended itself to musicians meeting out of these different events. It also fostered the strong sense of collaboration that brought on many new faces and ideas to the band. As Jesse said
Collaboration is a really big part of bluegrass music, with friends jumping in and out of each others bands…
Music Among Friends
With their latest album New Freedom Blues, collaboration was at the forefront of its creation. Friend Caleb Klauder(mandolin & fiddle for the Foghorn Stringband) was at the helm as producer. Miles Miller(drummer for Tyler Childers & Sturgill Simpson) provided the drums for the album, although his impact was more apparent as the band rehearsed a few songs with him. Jesse explains
“Miles came into the studio and we rehearsed a few songs, and it ended up that almost every song on the album had Miles on drums”.
With Miles came Tyler Childers(a good friend of the band) who co-wrote and provided vocals on the last song on the album Down Low. Recording the album in Echo Mountain Studios in Asheville, the band felt perfectly at home experimenting with different ideas.
A Busy Schedule
Town Mountain, like a lot of other working bands, tours heavily. Jesse gave me a ballpark range of over 120 dates a year. I was able to catch them live as they stopped in Charlotte at the Visulite Theatre July 25th. Playing close to a 2 hour set, the energy and tenacity of this band is relentless. Zac Smith(bass) provided a solid foundation for blistering solos courtesy of members Phil Barker & Bobby Britt. Jesse Langlais incorporated a great hand on banjo, while Robert Greer sang the truth in song. The musicianship of this band as a whole can’t be overlooked.
The crowd stayed eager throughout the whole set, getting rowdier as the night progressed, hollering after each solo and song. Town Mountain put on such a flawless show that they even did two songs after the encore.
As far as shows coming up, there is a big one on their minds. Red Rocks, with Tyler Childers. “Were really looking forward to Red Rocks” Jesse said enthusiastically.
125 Miles west of Charlotte is where Town Mountain came to be. They continue to be a band that works hard and plays hard. Hats off to these NC natives for making great music and being even better people. Special thanks to Jesse Langlais for taking the time to talk!
Two days was all it took to be hooked. This was ATC’s first time on the Wilkes Community College grounds for a festival that had so much admiration. Arriving on campus was a surreal site. Stepping off the local boy scout chartered school bus Friday afternoon, the festival was already in full swing. MerleFest had my full attention.
NAVIGATING THE FESTIVAL
The first day was overwhelming. Getting a booklet from a volunteer, I was quick to find a bench to sit and and get my bearings. With the festival being on a college campus, the grounds were easy to navigate and mostly flat. The Watson stage loomed in the distance as I made the trek to see it. I feel the Watson Stage acted as a centerpiece to the whole festival, a sort of central gathering place. As a first timer of MerleFest, the magnitude of this festival was a sight to see.
A BOY FROM KENTUCKY
7pm. “Supper Break” had commenced, a sort of 45 minute dinner break between sets at the Watson Stage. Festival goers were making their way around the huge food tent that MerleFest had provided. A lot of food being made and sold in the tent came from different non-profit groups and even the local Boy Scout organization. Money given in the food tent directly impacted the community in a huge way, a kind of overall theme of MerleFest. After getting a hotdog the Elvis hotdog man(yes like Elvis Presley),
people started making their way to the Watson stage directly across from the food tent. It was time for Tyler Childers. Tyler Childers isn’t just any country pickin’ songwriter, he hails from Lawrence County, Kentucky. The state has been infamous over the past couple years of producing some of the best country talent and Tyler really fits that bill. His incredible storytelling compels the listener to really appreciate all the imagery and imagination that Tyler brings into his songs.
All that to say that a bunch of people turned out to hear Tyler sing. And boy did he sing.
One of the coolest aspects of Tylers show was the inclusion of two drummers. It was incredible to watch how both of them could keep in time with each other, sharing fills for the duration of the set. Playing covers such as “Long Long Time To Get Old” really reinforced the notion that Tyler cares and wants to preserve his roots. He won’t ever let you forget about where he came from. After the last note had rung out on that chilly Friday night, it felt like all 10,000 plus people in attendance became closer. As the last bus from the local Boy Scout troop pulled away, everyone was ready for what was in store Saturday.
Thousands of people each year attend MerleFest. A lot of the people I talked to had been coming for years. The first lady I was fortunate enough to run into had a lap steel guitar on. Intriguing my interest, I asked her what she was doing with a lap steel guitar in the middle of a balmy Saturday afternoon. With a cheerful reply she said “Well I’m in line for the jam tent sir!”. I asked her how long she had been playing for.. “over 20 years!” she exclaimed. MerleFest has always had what I like to call a BYOI(Bring Your Own Instrument) policy that lets anyone and everyone bring an instrument to jam on. Whether you’ve been playing for a week or 20 years, the JamTent at MerleFest doesn’t discriminate. That’s special to a festival who brings in Grammy winning acts almost every year. I think I’ll bring my old Guild guitar next year.
MerleFest may be centered around music, but it also welcomes a different kind of art as well. Crafting. Entering the crafting tent, the overwhelming amount of human creation astounded me. Pottery to necklaces, everything a DIY’er could ever ask for was in this tent. One particular booth caught my attention. Avery Knifeworks is run by Raleigh Avery, a knifemaker out of Morganton, North Carolina. Raleigh makes every single knife by hand, carefully crafting a molten piece of steel into a functional piece of art. Like a musician, an artisan must practice his craft diligently. Since 2015, Raleigh’s been producing knives for not only people in the US, but people in other countries as well. A true maker in all sense of the word, I will surely be purchasing a knife from Raleigh in the near future.
Beyond crafting, I ran into a man who is all about organics. So much so, that him and his wife make all kinds of organic products, ranging from Blackberry Apple Jelly, to appetizing soup mixes. Keith Finger insisted that his wife Kim usually does all of the product development and R&D. Mountain Momma Organics operates out of Ritchie County, West Virginia, on their farm named Almost Heaven Farms. 100 acres became a playground for organic food and product development, as Keith and Kim have been producing products since 2011. Keith was eager to tell me the process of how things were made. For someone to be so transparent about their products means the world. It truly means they care. Thank you Keith for showing me around your booth, the cranberry apple granola bar was great!
A SHORT COMMUTE
MerleFest 2019 incorporated a great number of acts from North Carolina( over 35+). Acts ranging from morning performers to The Avett Brothers, who headlined on the Watson Stage the last day of the festival.
I first heard them stepping off the bus on the second day. The dance tent was conveniently located next to the entrance, and after getting checked in, I very quickly walked over to the tent. I had to see what band was playing such amazing “jazzy” tunes. And then there they were. As Ellis Dyson entertained the crowd in between songs with some witty comments, I know this band from Chapel Hill was special. Soon after their set was over, I was informed that they were going to be playing a second set later in the afternoon on another stage. Count on me being there. Once again, they played an incredible set filled with humor and wit. Please check them out if they come to your town or as Ellis put it “Watch out when we come to your town!”
CLOSING WITH BRANDI
“We were a daytime band, you know, the band that plays before the headliner”
Brandi Carlile wasn’t a stranger on my radar. Judging from how many people showed up Saturday night, I’d say she was on everyone’s radar as well. Brandi is sort of a national treasure in the folk/americana scene. Brandi has amassed numerous Grammys while also standing her ground on topics related to LGBT. A true artist in the purest form, Brandi showed poise and grace as she stepped on the Watson stage Saturday night. During her set she brought back the memory of 2016 when she last played MerleFest. “We were a daytime band, you know, the band that plays before the headliner”. A crowd as far as the eye could see accompanied Brandi as she blazed through her 14 song set. During the final songs of the set, Brandi would bring out Scott and Seth Avett from the Avett brothers. After playing through “Murder in the City” (an Avett Brothers original) and “Hold Out Your Hands”, Brandi thanked the crowd and left the stage gracefully into the night. A fitting ending to a magical Saturday at MerleFest.
As the Boy Scout Troop 109 bus dropped us off at parking lot A after Brandi’s set, a sort of contentment was in the air. A feeling that 4 days in late April would now be dedicated to a festival up in Wilkesboro. A festival that was one of the best experiences of my life so far.
None of this would have been possible without the amazing team at IVPR. Thank you for allowing Around The Country to cover this amazing festival.
2 days in April was all it took for a tradition to begin for the rest of my life.
Your favorite MerleFest artists..brought to you by Lindsay Craven.
Every year, multiple artists are contacted to play a show during the 4 days in April that is MerleFest. They must navigate process of scheduling, booking, and logistics. Fortunately, they have an ally. A veteran of MerleFest.
Enter Lindsay Craven, A dedicated entertainment professional with 11 years in Artist Relations under her belt. She’s helped numerous artists navigate the hectic landscape of MerleFest, but she’ll tell you that working with James Taylor was one of the more memorable ones.
ONCE AN INTERN..BUT NOT FOR LONG
Lindsay got her start early in her college career as an intern. “My internship was for marketing originally and then I worked the spring leading up to the festival in 2007. And then during the festival I ended up in artist relations.” She would eventually take on other impressive roles outside of the festival.
Yadkin Cultural Arts Center was a place Lindsay would frequent in the coming years. She would work as an administrative assistant for a year, then take on the role as House & Theatre manager for Willingham Theatre, the residential theatre of the arts center. Through all of this, she was still working hard at MerleFest every year, proving her commitment to this great festival. Soon, bigger things would come, as she would be promoted to Assistant Director for Yadkin Arts Council, then Executive Director of Yadkin Arts Council. An impressive couple years for Lindsay. After working MerleFest for over 10 years, she would take on her current role as MerleFest Artist Relations Manager. When asked if all of her previous roles prepared her for the new role at MerleFest she said “ I wore a lot of hats while I was there. So I think it helped in being prepared to juggle all the things that go along with artist relations”
IT PUTS US ON THE MAP
Just like festival director Ted Hagaman, Lindsay has been around MerleFest for over a decade. She has seen the changes and impact the festival has had on Wilkesboro. “It really put us on the map”. Ted and Lindsay knows the impact of MerleFest to the surrounding community. Part 1 of Makers of MerleFest described this impact in greater detail.
RAIN OR SHINE
With over 10 years of experience working in MerleFest, Lindsay Craven does have some cherished moments. Working with James Taylor was a special time in 2017. But it was the performance of The Avett Brothers in 2013. It had been raining all day that Sunday, and turnout for the Avett Brothers performance was looking bleak. Looking out over the Watson stage, the crowd hadn’t left. Lindsay remembers the energy of the crowd saying “the energy of that crowd was amazing. the audience loved it”. Crowds are attentive at MerleFest, rain or shine.
Lindsay Craven, along with Ted Hagaman, are just two of the many Makers of Merlefest. Their love for the festival is enduring, the passion they have for the people is infectious, and the desire to put on the best possible festival is paramount. There are many more people working behind the scenes, people that share the same passion that Ted and Lindsay share. If I could write articles about all of them I would. Such a special group of people sharing a common goal:
To continue the legacy and traditions of MerleFest for those four days in April.
Stay tuned for coverage of MerleFest by Around The Country as we take a look at the People of MerleFest.
Over a decade of being the festival director for MerleFest, Ted Hagaman is as genuine as they come.
Four days in April is all it takes for the quaint campus of Wilkes Community College to be transformed into a cultural hub for country and Americana music. Ted Hagaman knows that. Since 2005, he’s directed one of the biggest roots based festivals in the country.
A short lived retirement
Ted Hagaman retired from a career in marketing services and corporate events at Lowe’s in the year of 1999. Following a successful renovation project of the Walker Center(WCC’s on campus theatre), he was approached about taking an available director position at the theatre. Ted took this opportunity with an enthusiastic “why not?”
Because Wilkes Community College is so intertwined with the workings of MerleFest, the new theatre director role came with a few strings attached. “When I was hired they told me ‘well you will have to work MerleFest’. I had never been before”. Ted was ushered into the role of directing all hospitality operations at the festival. After a few years of hospitality service, 2005 would be a monumental year for Ted. “At this time the current festival director was retiring, and he asked if I’d be interested in the festival director role, and I certainly was”. Coming into his 13th year directing MerleFest, Ted has solidified himself as an ambassador of the festival.
“A big shot in the arm for this community”
Ted will be the first to tell you how this festival impacts Wilkes Community College and the town nestled around its campus. Since its inception 31 years ago, MerleFest has contributed over 14 million dollars to the college. This chunk of change has come in handy more times than not. More than a decade ago, the aftermath of the financial crisis was felt in America. State budgets were cut, jobs were lost, and an aurora of uncertainty swept over state funded small town colleges. Ted explains “In 2008 and 2009 when the economy went south, all of a sudden the state budgets got cut, and you know for a lot of colleges like ours it was a situation of what are we going to cut out to survive. MerleFest allowed our college to continue to make improvements and provide scholarships and capital projects and things like that. So it’s really made a huge difference.” MerleFest has been a steady fundraising event for the college every year, and puts WCC in a position that most other small town community colleges dream about.
Last year alone MerleFest contributed about twelve million dollars..over six million to Wilkes county alone.
Still, this festival reaches further than the classroom. With Wilkesboro and Wilkes county a buzz come late April, one could say it’s brought this tiny town some recognition and validity. “Last year alone MerleFest contributed about twelve million dollars..over six million to Wilkes county alone.” Festival attendance is growing every year, as more people make the pilgrimage to Wilkesboro. Some people would say it’s good business, but Ted just calls it “a big shot in the arm for this community”.
A listening crowd
A typical festival would include riled up crowds full of a sponsored alcoholic beverage and inebriated patrons at every corner. Don’t expect to get an overpriced domestic beer, because according to Ted “MerleFest is an alcohol and tobacco free festival”.
You’d think “how does this festival make up for exiling alcohol, a massive money maker for other festivals?”. You’d naturally bring extra money for parking and transportation, thinking of the exorbitant prices that are sure to come. No need to worry. Free parking and transportation are included. Ted also pointed out that “you’ll get a free 20 page program that will give you all the information you need, with a map and bios on the performers and a lot of information about the history of the festival.”
This festival puts truly puts its people over profit.
With all of these variables comes a type of crowd. A listening crowd. Ask Ted about the crowds at MerleFest, and he’ll tell you that they hold expectations. Ears waiting for every note. People come to MerleFest to get lost in the songs, the performances, and the stories. This is something that MerleFest prides itself on. A festival for all ages and backgrounds.
Memories of a MerleFest trailblazer & the future to come.
A final question was asked on any memories that stood out over the years. Ted brought up the last performance of Doc Watson before his passing.
For those not versed in the history of MerleFest, Doc Watson was the founder of the festival, naming the festival after his son Merle, who tragically passed away. 2012 was his final appearance at the festival. It was a fitting ending to a man who loved people and music. Ted explains:
“20 days after the festival was over for the year, he passed. We knew Doc was not well, but we did not realize it was to that point. He did a gospel set on that Sunday morning, the last day of the festival. It was really special because I think people in the audience knew that he was probably on borrowed time. He was, and it turned out to be the very last performance he ever did. I’ll always remember that. That was special.”
Through all the years, Ted holds this memory closest.
If there’s one thing that strikes me about Ted Hagaman and MerleFest, it’s authenticity. Talking with Ted, it’s evident that he truly cares about every single person who walks through the gate. He wants to get it right year after year, and he takes pride in continuing the legacy that Doc Watson started. MerleFest is purposely about the people and the stories they share through song. MerleFest isn’t about fitting in or subscribing to the norm, but when it comes to who’s running this great festival, I’d say Ted Hagaman is the perfect fit.
For Ted, he recognizes that he can’t run a festival solo. He needs hardworking staff that care about the festival just as much as he does. Next week is part 2 of The Makers Of MerleFest as we feature another maker of MerleFest, Lindsay Craven. Lindsay works as the Artist Relations manager for the festival and just like Ted, she cares deeply about preserving the authenticity of MerleFest.
Kentucky brings out the best country musicians..Kyle Daniel is one of em’
Kyle Daniel was a newcomer on my country radar.. A product of my Spotify discover weekly. I owe the streaming service a lot over the past few years, but after discovering Kyle, I may be indebted forever.
Kentucky & country music are hot right now. The state is scattered with the birthplaces of many current country greats. Stapleton’s from Lexington, Sturgill’s from Jackson, and Kyle? Well he hails from Bowling Green. You can hear his emotion screaming through his Dr. Z amp.
After listening to his latest EP “What’s There To Say?” I could see that Kyle’s been through the ringer. “Born to Lose” invokes a story of a man who’s given up on not only those around him, but himself as well. The title track “What’s There To Say” shows a relationship in turmoil and the side effects that it brings. Reading into the life that Kyle lived in Bowling Green, it wasn’t without struggle. Stories of losing close friends to opioid addictions brought the track “Born to Lose’ to the world. This songwriting showed that Kyle is bringing a bigger issue to light. This is more than a song…more that an EP.
Artists that forge their own path in songwriting have a lot to prove. Listening to “What’s There To Say” brought me back to the first time I ever listened to “High Top Mountain” by fellow Kentuckian Sturgill Simpson. I feel these two albums share similarities, in that they talk about the hard stuff. The hard shit in life that involves real emotion and real struggle. That takes a lot of guts to do. This isn’t your typical three minute and thirty second song about (insert generic country theme here)
This music is about real life. What Kyle and other amazing artists from Kentucky do so well is they write from the heart. They don’t dance around the subject, they hit you straight in the face with it. They bring up topics that may not be Music Row friendly. The beautiful thing is that people care, and people relate.
Kyle’s live show was equally impressive. With an incredible band behind him, this was one of the tightest acts i’ve seen in a very long time. Mostly originals with a few covers in between, I really hope Kyle comes back to Charlotte soon. Whether it’s in life or on stage, Kyle Daniel proved to me that the power of a song is very much alive in country music.
Kyle fits right up there with other Kentucky greats who’ve come along to shape the future of country music.