By David Coulson. BOONE, NC — Musical wiz-kid Liam Purcell was just nine years old when he traveled with his family to see his first MerleFest.
COVER IMAGE: Courtesy of Cane Mill Road website, www.canemillroad.com
Only six years later, Purcell and his band, Cane Mill Road, will be among the 124 featured acts performing at one of the biggest bluegrass and Americana music festivals in the country when MerleFest kicks off its 31st year on Thursday afternoon at Wilkes Community College, in Wilkesboro.
The event, started by the legendary Doc Watson in 1988 as a memorial to his son, Merle Watson, will run from Thursday through Sunday.
Growing up in Doc Watson’s hometown of Deep Gap, less than 30 minutes away from the MerleFest venue, Purcell was inspired early by an artist who was the recipient of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
“I have a deep connection with Doc Watson,” this personable 15-year-old explained.
While Purcell and Cane Mill Road have performed in youth concerts in the past at MerleFest, this is the first time that they have been featured performers. The highly-acclaimed group will be introducing their second full-length album to the audience during four sets on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
I have a deep connection with Doc Watson.
Cane Mill Road will play Friday at 3:30 p.m. on the Little Pickers Stage and at 5 p.m. at the Plaza Stage. The quartet will be back on the Little Pickers Stage Saturday and Sunday at 11 a.m.
The past year and a half have been crucial in the development of a band that the International Bluegrass Music Association recently called “…(among) the hottest acts shaping bluegrass music.”
Their debut album, “Five Speed,” was released last year to instant acclaim and immediately rose to the top 10 of the Billboard Magazine Bluegrass Chart at the No. 9 position. The new album, which is scheduled to come out in a little over a month, should make even more of an impact for these fledgling artists.
“We’re playing all of the songs (on the new album) already,” said Purcell. “MerleFest is going to be like a sneak peek. This album is going to be almost all original.”
Even though the four members of the band are still in high school they will be embarking on a significant tour to support the new album, called “Gap to Gap.”
“We’ve been gearing up for a year of touring,” Purcell said.
Merlefest is going to be like a sneak peek.
Cane Mill Road is already well-seasoned to life on the road. Current members Purcell and Eliot Smith, along with former bassist Kinsey Greene traveled to Argentina during the summer of 2015 for the U.N.-sanctioned International Bluegrass Festival. The musicians have been traveling throughout America since forming four years ago, becoming a staple at many different festivals.
But there is no place as special for these local youngsters as the MerleFest.
“I’ve seen some of the most influential acts there,” Purcell said, “people like the Kruger Brothers, who are there every year.”
A special moment for Purcell was rubbing musical elbows with Gillian Welch, Peter Rowan, and David Rawlings at the Saturday Midnight Jam a few years back.
Even more notable were the times when Purcell and banjo player Tray Wellington (an Ashe County native) won the prestigious Brian Friesen Memorial Award — a special honor handed out occasionally to budding banjo stars — in 2014 and 2016, respectively.
The new album contains 11 group-penned pieces and three cover songs.
“We were all involved, tweaking these songs,” Purcell said of the collaborative effort of the songwriting. “I’m proud of the cohesive of this album. I hope people enjoy it.”
It’s really special to be considered a band on the rise.
Purcell described his writing method as “an analytic approach.”
“I try to write from experience,” said the prodigy, who has witnessed things that those twice his age haven’t. “I make a deep study of other writers I like.”
A new addition to the band, guitarist Casey Lewis from Virginia, joined forces with Purcell, Smith and Wellington, bringing a new dynamic to the band after going through an audition process that started at MerleFest last year.
Lewis’ talent as a writer and his craftsmanship on guitar has freed up the other three band members to focus on other things, broadening the sound of this unit that blends elements of bluegrass, Americana, and folk.
Smith, an excellent guitarist in his own right, has replaced Greene (now in college) on upright bass and Purcell has been able to concentrate on two of his favorite instruments — mandolin and fiddle. Purcell can also contribute on guitar — his first of many instruments.
“Eliot is on top of his game as a bass player,” Purcell said.
Wellington’s skill as an improviser is continuing to grow as this amazing banjo picker, with just a few years of experience, has earned tremendous recognition in meteoric fashion.
“We’ve gotten a lot of validation from our work,” said Purcell. “It’s really special to be considered a band on the rise.”