A Start to the Southern Music Canon

MerleFest hit pause this year, but its artists hit play on these beloved Southern songs

Photo: Courtesy of MerleFest

Doc Watson at the inaugural MerleFest in 1988, performing on a flatbed trailer that served as the main stage.

Wilkesboro, North Carolina’s MerleFest has been a family affair since the bluegrass patriarch Doc Watson founded the festival at Wilkes Community College in 1988 and named it after his late son, guitarist Eddy “Merle” Watson. 

The festival, which raises funds for the Wilkes Community College Foundation, was canceled this year to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, but its educational undertone and giving spirit remain: MerleFest ticket holders have the option to convert their purchase price to a donation to the college’s foundation until April 15.

For artists, MerleFest has long been a reunion of sorts—many return year after year. “MerleFest artists have a foot firmly in the future,” says musician Bryan Sutton, a repeat MerleFest performer and accomplished guitarist who’s known for his work with Ricky Skaggs and Hot Rize. “But they remember where they came from—and they work to educate their fans on exactly what that is.” Here, eight artists from the lineup each share a song they consider essential to the Southern music tradition. What songs would you add? 

“Foggy Mountain Breakdown” 
By Flatt & Scruggs
“The banjo tune that set the standard for an entire generation of pickers.”
—Sam Bush, Grammy-winning mandolinist

“Black Mountain Rag”
By Doc Watson
“It’s a Doc Watson staple. Nobody can touch him when it comes to this kind of pickin’.” 
—Billy Strings, bluegrass guitarist

“Mississippi Goddam” 
By Nina Simone
“Born and raised in North Carolina, Simone encapsulates the struggle of the black Southerner. Her vocals and lyrics are frank and matter-of-fact, intertwining seamlessly with the show-tune piano underneath.”
—Amythyst Kiah, singer-songwriter

“Mr. Fool”
By George Jones
“Arguably the greatest Honky Tonk song ever recorded. No country singer could make you feel their emotions more than George Jones.”
—Charley Crockett, singer-songwriter

“Farther Along”
“Hymns and spirituals aren’t just part of Southern music, but really are the seeds of what we recognize as folk music around the world. This is one of those that I associate with the church experience in the South. It has a lilting melody with a message of hope through encouragement and understanding.”
—Bryan Sutton, multi-instrumentalist with Hot Rize

“Georgia on My Mind”
By Ray Charles
“An account of longing for the South, a place where the author dreams of returning. The melody of the song is a throwback to the days of our greatest compositions.”
—Toby Weaver, guitarist and vocalist with Cordovas

“I’ve Endured”
By Ola Belle Reed
“It speaks to the human spirit, the virtue of resilience, the merits of grinning and bearing. Southern music stems from hardship, and provides a way to sublimate our struggles into art. This song gives us beautiful language to frame our experiences, which oftentimes aren’t so beautiful.”
—Joe Troop of Che Apalache

“Pancho and Lefty”
By Townes Van Zandt
“It’s true and it’s Southern—even though it mentions Ohio.”
—Jerry Douglas, guitarist with Alison Krauss and Union Station