Quick Takes featuring “Over The Trees” by The Steel Wheels

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.

Amazing photo courtesy of Ruby Sky Photography

Go fill your weekend with this album…and catch The Steel Wheels in your town as they tour the country through November.

A Festival for All

How two days up in Wilkesboro changed my life.

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.


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.


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),

The Elvis Hot Dog Guy…

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!


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.

Once again, a certain band caught my eye(or should I say ear). Ellis Dyson and the Shambles are a gypsy jazz band out of Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Ellis Dyson

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!”


“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.

Makers of MerleFest (Part 2)

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.


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”


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.


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.

Makers Of MerleFest (Part 1)

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.

True Grit. in life & in music.

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.

Tony Lucca

The renaissance man residing in Nashville brings his stories to Charlotte.

Tony Lucca is indeed a man of many disciplines. From his start in acting, to finding success in songwriting, with songs being placed in major tv shows including Friday Night Lights, he has had a unique career as an entertainer so far.

Living in Los Angeles for a brief time(1995-1997) he acted full time until deciding to pursue music in 1997.

This was my first time seeing Tony live, so I was unaware of the energy he brings to his live shows, and it truly was infectious. The intimate setting of The Evening Muse brought Tony’s energy that much closer to the audience, providing a truly entertaining show. Tony has a way of inviting you into his songs, making you feel like you’ve heard them a thousand times. People can tell that the songs he writes mean something. They weigh on you and make you really believe true music. Different songs tell different times in his life such as “Empty Handed Blues”, born out of a long trip from Charlotte to Jacksonville. Tony’s songs are place marks in his life, a trait that many legendary songwriters have.

Tony with his TFDI Fest shirt. A music festival started by Tony and friends. https://www.tfdifest.com/

Apart from writing songs, Tony has ventured into organizing a music festival from scratch starting TFDI Fest(Totally Fuckin’ Doing It) with Jay Nash. “Hand selecting” different artists to perform, this festival will run in the fall(September 6th & 7th)

Other big news coming out of the workings of Tony include a new album called “Ain’t No Storm” releasing on March 29th. Super exciting news for sure!

Writing hit songs, releasing a new album, and starting a music festival sounds like a pipe dream for most musicians, but for Tony Lucca, he’s Totally Fuckin’ Doing It.

Future Thieves

It’s time to focus on one of Nashville’s celebrated rock n’ roll bands.

Future Thieves rolled into Charlotte, fresh off of releasing a new single entitled “Focus”. Weeks after selling out the Basement East in Nashville, these guys carried that same energy to Charlotte.

If there’s one thing to be said about these guys, is that they get the concept of straight forward, no frills rock and roll. I can remember about half way through the set, seeing bass player Nick Goss’ bass amp visibly rocking from side to side. That’s the energy of this band. That’s what they give you any night of the week.

Old favorites such as “Rosie” and “Horizon Line” were main staples in the set, but newer songs such as “Machines” and the newest of the bunch “Focus” really showed the creativity and versatility of the Future Thieves sound. These guys have found a really great sound that can appeal to not only rock n’ roll purists, but to fans of other pop centered genres.

Their last time in Charlotte was on October 5th, when they did a set for Sofar Sounds(a really cool music concept that you should check out). When talking about Sofar Sounds during the set, lead singer Elliot Collet was quick to praise the stripped down nature of the performance and the connection that it brings to the listener. That’s really the root of the success these guys have had so far. They love the connection between band and listener. They want to give you the best show possible, all the time, every time…and they always overdeliver.

Future Thieves has a couple remaining dates on their current tour schedule. Go support a band that thrives on real, pure music. I promise you’ll be a future fan.

Rayland Baxter

Seeing is Believing at The Visulite

Rayland Baxter isn’t black & white. Rayland Baxter isn’t one dimensional. Rayland Baxter certainly isn’t ordinary. Rayland is his own kind, a one-off, a truly magical artist that you need to see to believe.

The Nashville native(which makes him even more special) made his triumphant return to the Queen City, since his last appearance in Charlotte at The Evening Muse.

Most of the world including myself, were introduced to Rayland’s unique characteristics though one of his more popular songs “Yellow Eyes”. I still remember watching through the screen as a man in a Goodyear hat played all the right notes and hit all the right emotions.

After playing a couple of tried and true originals, Rayland’s tribute to another unique artist was one of the highlights of the night. His cover of “Come Back to Earth” by the late Mac Miller drew the crowd close. I took it as not only as as a tribute, but a gesture of respect. Later in the night, a cover by Neil Young was wildly accepted.

I believe very root of Baxters rise to prominence has to do with his carefree nature. He isn’t flashy or egotistic. He doesn’t try too hard to be “different”. He’s there for the music and the people. While other artists erect grandiose stage plots, Rayland comes out on stage amidst a tie dye backdrop, plugs in his Gibson semi hollow-body guitar, and lets the music shine.

We all came out on a Thursday night, not only to see a performance, but to believe in the magic of Baxter.

Baxter, known for his heavy touring, will be on the road through September.

Diamonds and Whiskey.

One of Charlotte’s country gems puts on one hell of a show.

A chilly night in January. Running from car to venue in order not to freeze was a requirement. Once inside, a warm welcome was made to Diamonds and Whiskey as they started their set.

With a kick of the leg on every downbeat, Von Bury(the guitar player for D&W) first caught my eye with his energetic stage presence and ferocious lead tones.

The band started out strong and loud, pairing original songs with some well known cover songs by Kings of Leon and other classic rock icons. When it was time for the energy of the set to come down, it was for good reason.

Jenny Webb(lead singer and guitar player for D&W) announced that they would play a song they had never done before live. The song entitled “hero” was about Jenny’s fight with Lyme disease.

It was honestly my favorite part of the night, showing how such a terrible ordeal can lead to such a moving song. If I didn’t know it was the first time this band had played this song live, I would have thought it had been a staple in their set for years.

After such an emotional & moving song, the band launched back into more original songs with the occasional cover song thrown in. Notably “Buy Me A Boat” by Chris Janson was a welcome surprise.

After the final song had been played, and the lights had come up, I was left with a really great feeling about this band. Their fans are loyal hard-working folks that just want to have a good time, they play no-frills in your face country-rock, and as a band they really gel well together.

I’m glad to see a band that knows how they want to sound & knows where they want to go.

Diamonds & Whiskey was on fire on a cold January night.