By Mike Hembree
Graham Sharp has gone from working security to stardom at the Merlefest music festival.
Sharp plays banjo with the Grammy-winning Steep Canyon Rangers and will be on stage with the group Sunday afternoon during the popular festival April 25-28 at Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, N.C.
The Rangers, one of America’s top bluegrass bands and frequent collaborators with comedian/musician Steve Martin, have played 10 times at Merlefest, which brings together an eclectic mix of dozens of singer-songwriters and bands. But Sharp, one of the band’s founders, remembers a time when he was on the other side of the fence.
“We used to go there and camp out,” he said. “Some years we went and never made it into the festival proper. We camped out and played music. Didn’t have the money to get in.
“I remember volunteering to get in for the first time. I worked perimeter security. ‘Strong-arming.’ I didn’t really have to do much.”
Now Sharp and the Rangers are one of the festival’s featured groups. Their polished brand of musicianship and songwriting has garnered fans across the country and across the Atlantic, and their Sunday afternoon set is likely to be a Merlefest highlight.
Sharp said the group plans to play what it calls a “North Carolina Songbook,” doing tunes written by North Carolinians including Earl Scruggs, Elizabeth Cotten, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Poole, and, of course, Doc Watson, whose career is celebrated at Merlefest. The festival is named for Watson’s son, Merle, who also was a musician.
“A lot of it really centers around Doc and all the different influences he drew from,” Sharp said. “He played such a wide spectrum of music. We’re going to try to take a little bit of this and a little bit of that and put it in the Steep Canyon thing.”
More than 80 artists and bands are scheduled to play at the festival. Included are The Avett Brothers, Brandi Carlile, Amos Lee, Wynonna and the Big Noise, the Del McCoury Band, Dailey and Vincent, Keb Mo, Donna the Buffalo, and Jim Lauderdale.
The festival is a reunion of sorts for many of the players. Ace musicians like mandolinist Sam Bush and dobro master Jerry Douglas often sit in with bands during their sets, adding to the musical mix.
“I was blown away the first time we played with Sam Bush,” Sharp said. “He could just step on the stage and kill it, but I couldn’t believe how much preparation he had put into it for somebody who has played with everybody. He had a big notebook. That made a big impression on me.”
The six members of the Steep Canyon Rangers live in Asheville and Brevard, North Carolina. When they travel, they often meet at the Mills River Walmart.
It’s on the way to Merlefest.
If you go
When: April 25-28
Where: 1328 S. Collegiate Drive, Wilkesboro, N.C.
Tickets: $60-$270, available at merlefest.org/purchase/