Favorite MerleFest and Rooster Walk Musical Discoveries

06/25/2015 08:20 pm ET | Updated Jun 26, 2016

MerleFest and Rooster Walk Music and Art Festival have kicked off the 2015 summer music festival season to standing ovations. Fans have been posting all over social media they're already looking forward to next year, biding their time for these iconic Americana and roots festivals -- considered some of the best in the Southeast. There were amazing performances by MerleFest headliners, including The Avett Brothers, Lee Ann Womack, Dwight Yoakam -- as well as Rooster Walk headliners Yonder Mountain String Band, Steep Canyon Rangers and Lake Street Dive. But other acts, too numerous to mention, did not disappoint. One of my favorite things about attending these festivals in particular are the new acts I "discover" by wandering among the stages. This year was no exception. Following are just a few personal discoveries I made over the two weekends. As a friend of mine says, "You come for the big names on the poster, but it's the smaller names that keep you coming back." Next up for me are Red Wing Roots Music Festival and FloydFest. How about you? What festivals are you headed to this summer?


This North Carolina-based band performed at both MerleFest and Rooster Walk and played one of my new favorite songs, "Calling Carolina," which I can't shake out of my head. It's no surprise that one of the members of the Appalachian-influenced bluegrass string quartet, Joseph Terrell, was a winner in MerleFest's Chris Austin Songwriting Contest (see below) in 2014.

The HoneyDew Drops and The Honeycutters

I have learned that I like acts that include the word honey in their names. Both performed at MerleFest. I am looking forward to hearing The HoneyDew Drops, who also have a new album out, "Tangled Country, and they are scheduled to perform at Red Wings.

Logan Brill

I had the opportunity to sit down for a few minutes to chat with this young woman and I was struck by her maturity, sincerity and passion for what she is doing. She has been compared to Bonnie Raitt, among others, but she is creating how own brand of music. She released her second album, "Shuteye," earlier this month. Missed her at MerleFest? She's playing Muddy Creek Music Hall in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on Aug. 12.


You may be wondering why this now periennial MerleFest favorite made my "discovery" list. While it's true the Raleigh-now-D.C.-based Celtic group isn't new to the festival, they did release their newest album, "Tin Can" at MerleFest. I dare you to sit down the whole time during one of this group's performances. Their energy is infectious. Check out their exhausting tour schedule here because they are most likely coming to a city near you and soon.

Jesse and Noah Bellamy

The sons and nephews of one of country's most popular duos, The Bellamy Brothers, are making their own unique music these days, music that just has to be making the elder brothers proud.

Chatham County Line

If you haven't had a chance to catch this group of guys, stop what you are doing right now and try to find them playing a gig near you and go see them. They're so much fun. Better yet, buy tickets for Red Wing, where they are performing on Friday, July 10.

James Nash of The Waybacks

Again, you're probably wondering why I would include Nash in a post about new discoveries at MerleFest, since The Waybacks have been playing the festival since 2007. I was fortunate enough to sit down with Nash after he came off the Walker Center Stage from the band's Friday afternoon performance; his energy and enthusiasm were contagious. I had no idea the time and effort that goes into what has become the festival's most popular non-Watson stage event, The Hillside Album Hour. Nash and the other San Franciso-based Waybacks with a little help from their friends -- Joan Osborne (yes THAT Joan Osborne, Sam Bush, Jim Lauderdale and Jens Kruger -- surprised the crowd this year with their version of Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." You say you missed it? Lucky for you it was recorded and you can purchase the Hillside Album Hour performance from this year at MerleFest 2016.

Chris Austin Songwriting Contest

Also not new, but new to me. While I know a number of MerleFest headliners got their start on this tiny stage in Alumni Hall -- indeed Abigail Washburn mentioned on Friday that she was second runner up in the contest not so many years ago -- I had never heard any of the emerging songwriters perform until this year. That's because this year marked the first time I actually knew someone who was a finalist in the contest. Check out Carri Smithey and her band, Josh Coe (Saxapahaw, N.C.), Ryan Burgess (Burlington, N.C.) and Keith Ingalls (Burlington, N.C.) performing their third place song, "No More."

Will Overman Band

Will Overman is a junior majoring in sociology at the University of Virginia who sesongs seem to be drawn from the experiences of someone much older. I heard him and his self-titled band perform at Rooster Walk. Their music falls somewhere in between bluegrass, country, rock, blues and pop that creates what most of us consider Americana folk rock. You can catch them at the Devil's Backbone Brewery on July 18 and in Charlottesville's The Jefferson Theater on July 25, where they are performing with The Hackensaw Boys (one of my festival finds of 2014 you may recall.)

Annabelle's Curse

I also heard this band for the first time perform at Rooster Walk 7. This five-piece alternative folk band from Bristol, Tennessee/Virginia doesn't seem to be cursed as much as blessed with talent. Catch this refreshing act at FloydFest in July.

Josh Shilling and Mountain Heart

Bassett, Virginia-native Josh Shilling served as Rooster Walk 7's musical ambassador, or artist-at-large, sitting in on various sets with just as varied groups including Yarn and Left Hip Pocket over the four-day event. But the highlight of Shilling's performances was the lead singer, piano player and guitarist's Sunday afternoon set with Mountain Heart.

Stop Light Observations

I only caught their last song when this group performed at Rooster Walk 7, but they were my husband's favorite. His take: "The played music ranging from the 'Game of Thrones' theme song to 'Gimme Three Steps' to 'Psycho Killer.' It was more like being at a party than with a bunch of old people in lawn chairs."

Seth Stainback and Roosterfoot and Major and the Monbacks

And speaking of rockin', both of these Virginia groups rocked Rooster Walk 7.

Virginia Beach native Stainback and Roosterfoot delivered a powerful blend of blues, country, folk, old gospel and rock. What started out as a father/son duo with Keith Stainback has turned into a soulful powerhouse after adding former Wet Willie guitarist Larry Berwald , fellow shipyard worker Steven Yewcic on bass and music promoter Jason Bruner on drums.

In another family affair, twin brothers Neal and Cole Friedman founded what became Major and the Monbacks during high school in Norfolk, Virginia, in 2008, teaming up with classmates Michael Adkins, Harry Slater, and Tyler West to form the core group that has driven the continued evolution and success of the band over the past seven years.

If you missed them, both groups can be seen performing at FloydFest in July.