Since 1994 the Master Musicians Festival has brought marquee names to Somerset and the Lake Cumberland region including The Avett Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show and Willie Nelson. This weekend’s 24th annual gathering boasted fan favorites Colter Wall, Old 97’s, Dawes and Blackberry Smoke on stage at Festival Field at Somerset Community College.
As I arrived at the festival on Friday evening I was greeted by an enthusiastic cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” by Nashville based folk/Americana group Roanoke, led by the elegant harmonies of Joey Beesley and Taylor Dupuis.
Following Roanoke was Lexington’s The Wooks, the second Kentucky band of the day, the other being Frontier, a group from London who kicked off the day’s festivities. The Wooks were joined by Will Parsons on banjo, with Arthur Hancock playing rhythm guitar after aggravating a tendon in his hand in May and further inflaming it at Festival of the Bluegrass, making it difficult for him to play the banjo. According to Hancock, the performance at Master Musicians Festival was his second on guitar, with the first being the night prior at the Hometown Throw Down at the Estill County Fair. He expects to be away from his banjo for six to eight weeks.
Drawing the most buzz on Friday was Canadian songwriting whiz Colter Wall, who was backed by a full band during his set. Wall, with his deep, gritty voice and exquisite songwriting draws comparisons to Waylon Jennings and wordsmiths of old. Late in his set, Wall performed “Motorcycle” off his new self-titled album, introducing it by saying he wrote the song after listening to the “The Motorcycle Song” on the B-side of Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant”.
Closing out Friday night were Texas’ alt-country four piece Old 97’s. The group started off slow, but appeared in sync with the crowd a couple of songs in, led by guitarist Rhett Miller on hits “Wasted” and “Good with God.”
Saturday began with a trio of homegrown Kentucky acts that included Somerset’s Burn Hislope, Morehead’s The Local Honeys and and Lexington’s The Rooster’s Crow. The Honeys engaged the early bird crowd with their elegant storytelling and comedic banter between songs spanning a set that included “Hares on the Mountain” and “Cigarette Trees,” which won the duo a blue ribbon earlier this year at Merlefest’s songwriting competition. The group was transformed to a trio on Saturday with the addition of Megan Gregory on fiddle.
The Rooster’s Crow, fresh off the release of its debut record “Winter’s Limbs,” shined under the early afternoon sun as guitarist Derek Spencer’s poetic songwriting and commanding voice meshed masterfully with Chip Minks’ driving basslines and Maggie Lander’s seismic fiddle.
Another young buck rising through the Americana music ranks along with Colter Wall is 23-year-old Oklahoman Parker Millsap, who brought an amped up performance to Master Musicians Festival compared to when I saw him open for Old Crow Medicine two nights in the Spring of 2016 at the Singletary Center. Millsap’s youthful energy shot through Festival Field like a firecracker, getting the fast-growing afternoon crowd off their feet and packed in front of the stage for hits “Truck Stop Gospel” and “The Very Last Day”.
Closing out the festival were Dawes and Blackberry Smoke, introduced as two of the most popular and highly requested bands by fans in Master Musicians Festival history. Dawes captured the energy radiating through the festival grounds following Millsap and kicked the intensity up a notch during a set that featured “When My Time Comes”, which guitarist Taylor Goldsmith urged the crowd to take over and sing along to the chorus the final time through. Throughout the set Goldsmith wore his emotions on his sleeves, throwing all of his energy behind every high note, fully invested in the moment.
With anticipation reaching a fever pitch, Georgia-based southern rockers Blackberry Smoke took to a dimmed stage emblazoned at the rear by an enormous tapestry with the band’s name skewed across shortly after 10 p.m. The group, which recently returned from a tour across Europe, performed several songs off its record “Like An Arrow” including “Waiting on the Thunder”.
Earlier Saturday, the festival awarded Edsel Blevins, a long-time banjo player and retired school custodian who picked at railroad stations around the Big South Fork area, with it’s Lifetime Achievement and 2017 Master Musician awards. Blevins followed by performing a three-song set with Kevin Dalton on guitar and Tommy Cate on harmonica.
Mother Nature cooperated throughout the weekend with sunny weather and well-timed breezes, minus a storm in the wee hours of Saturday morning.
Julie Harris, secretary on the festival’s 2017 board of directors, estimated a crowd of 2,000 Friday night and 4,000 Saturday, adding that those numbers are up from last year but not back to the levels the festival experienced in 2013 and 2014 with Willie Nelson and Counting Crowes as headliners.