Merle Zuel has organized 10 MerleJams, but none has been like this year’s.
The annual event at Knuckleheads Saloon raises money for the MerleJam Transplant Fund, which helps heart-transplant recipients cover medical and other expenses. Zuel started the fundraiser in 2007, the year he became a heart-transplant recipient.
The event has raised more than $100,000 for the fund, which is administered through the St. Luke’s Foundation at St. Luke’s Hospital. This year’s MerleJam takes place Friday and Saturday at Knuckleheads, and for the first time in 10 years, one of the performers will be the recipient of an organ transplant: blues guitarist Walter Trout.
“Walter had a liver transplant almost two years ago, on Memorial Day weekend of 2014,” Zuel said. “By all reports he is better than ever, with the renewed energy you get from getting through (a transplant) and on to the other side. He’ll be the first transplant recipient to perform at the event.”
The blues community rallied around Trout after word spread of his need for a transplant. Friends and colleagues like Robert Cray helped raise about $250,000 for the procedure, which was performed at the University of Nebraska, Zuel said.
In 2015, Trout released the album “Battle Scars,” which includes the song “Gonna Live Again.” It addresses the spiritual renewal he experienced after the transplant.
“He sings about never having done anything right and all the mistakes he made, then realizing he is going to live again after standing at death’s door,” Zuel said, “It’s a good musical expression and something that connects with transplant recipients.”
Trout will perform Saturday, part of the blues-themed lineup. Friday’s lineup is country-themed.
“Friday will be a really fun country show,” Zuel said. “Hayseed Dixie headlines, and we’ve got Cash’d Out, a Johnny Cash tribute band, Outlaw Jim and the Whiskey Benders and Sara Morgan, a young country star on the rise. There’s something for everyone.” Tickets to Friday’s show are $15.
Saturday’s lineup is “my best ever,” Zuel said. It includes guitarist Nick Schnebelen, formerly of Trampled Under Foot, and his band; JJ Grey & Mofro, and the Kris Lager Band, who will perform on the outdoor stage; and the Old No. 5’s, who will perform in the Gospel Lounge.
“And then in the Garage, we will have guitar-slinger’s heaven,” Zuel said.
That lineup comprises Davy Knowles, formerly of Back Door Slam, Trout and Doyle Bramhall II. Tickets are $28.50.
“What don’t you know about Doyle Bramhall?” Zuel said. “He’s one of the best blues and rock guitar players. We had him booked for last year’s (MerleJam), but what are you going to do when you get asked to play for Eric Clapton’s birthday party at Madison Square Garden? It’s hard to pass that up. So he’s coming this year, and it will be great to see him stretch out in such a small setting.”
Aside from the music, with help from the Midwest Transplant Network, MerleJam will emphasize the need for organ donors and the importance of transplants, something Trout will attest to.
“We aren’t going to beat everyone over the head with a message,” Zuel said, “but it will be a party that’s also a celebration of life.” And the joy of second chances.
The 10th annual MerleJam starts at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 6:30 p.m. Saturday. Friday’s lineup: the Sara Morgan Band, Outlaw Jim and the Whiskey Benders, Cash’d Out and Hayseed Dixie. Tickets are $15. Saturday’s lineup: Old No. 5’s, the Nick Schnebelen Band, JJ Grey and Mofro, the Kris Lager Band, Davy Knowles, Walter Trout and Doyle Bramhall II. Tickets are $28.50.