For 20 Years, Bristol Rhythm & Roots Has Walked The (State) Line
Alas, the building that housed the Taylor-Christian Hat and Glove Company is no longer standing. But a historic marker at the site on State Street in Bristol reminds us that in the summer of 1927, traveling Victor Records talent scout Ralph Peer took out space on its third floor, set up a portable disc recorder and produced the sessions that became the widely acknowledged Big Bang of American country music.
The historic echoes of that event are never louder than in September when Bristol hosts its Rhythm & Roots Reunion, a festival that’s bolstered the music of its region, launched careers, and helped Bristol itself recover from the small town atrophy of the late 20th century. The Tennessee/Virginia line literally runs down the middle of the festival’s main street, and just as you can straddle the border for a photo, the festival has straddled borders in music, embracing eclectic Americana with a mountain soul. As old school as it can feel, Bristol Reunion is a 21st century phenomenon, launching just weeks after September 11, 2001 and growing steadily, at least until 2020’s Covid wipeout. The 2021 comeback edition, coinciding with its 20th anniversary year, called for a road trip.
To a visitor, Bristol looks and feels like a single small city and a “A Good Place To Live” as its famous 110-year old sign proclaims in lights. But it is in fact two towns with distinct governments, police departments and issues. Residents pay different taxes depending on where they live, even down to what side of State Street they do business on. It’s an unusual arrangement that roughly doubles the number of parties involved in launching, cultivating and running a festival. But the two Bristols make it work, enthusiastically. And it has been a huge factor in revitalizing the city as a destination in the new Appalachia, says city native Charlene Baker, communications director for Rhythm & Roots.
“We always used to say Bristol is a good place to leave,” Baker quips about her younger years in town, when a new mall siphoned off commerce from downtown. “There were not a lot of things here for young people. You felt like you couldn’t make it unless you left. So when people said the Bristol Sessions are really important, I think a lot of people thought, who cares about a bunch of dusty old records? Why would anybody care about that? Well, we took that on almost as a challenge.”
The first conspicuous gesture toward reclaiming that legacy came when banjo player and sign maker Tim White secured permission and volunteered to paint the now-famous Birthplace of Country Music mural on State Street in 1986. Recently touched up and looking fresh, it features the sessions’ most important discoveries, the Stoneman Family, Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family. White told Wide Open Country recently that the mural first attracted pickers for social jam sessions before it became a genuine tourist attraction and an anchor for conversations about Bristol’s role in history.
Then around 1990, the community raised the funds to renovate the Paramount Bristol, a classic 1931 Art Deco theater near the other end of State Street that spoke to the city’s prosperity before the Great Depression. So, when Rhythm & Roots came along in 2001, the mural and the Paramount made landmarks around which to build a street-based music showcase.
“It’s almost choking (me up) thinking about it being 20 years,” said Leah Ross, executive director of the Birthplace of Country Music, which runs the festival. She was a volunteer for that inaugural event, which went ahead just a couple of weeks after the 9/11 attacks. “We had planned that festival for a full year. I remember folks coming up to me and saying, Leah, we needed this so bad. We needed to have something to have joy about - not to overshadow what had happened, but just give some hope that we're still okay.”
For a couple of years, the Reunion was a provincial affair, drawing fewer than 10,000 people to hear regional songwriters and bluegrass or old-time bands. Then the festival expanded its scope to fully embrace modern roots music and newgrass. Old Crow Medicine Show was an early headliner that drew bigger crowds from more distant states. Baker remembers an early appearance by the up-and-coming Carolina Chocolate Drops as electrifying for the event.
The game-changer, all agree, was the 2014 opening of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum and the merger of that museum, its in-house Radio Bristol station and the September festival into a unified non-profit. With a new showplace for the story of the Bristol sessions and an online radio station curating roots music, festival attendance surged to at least 45,000 people over its three days. But the commitment to local talent development didn’t wane, says Kris Truelsen, founder of the band Bill & the Belles and program director for Radio Bristol.
“I've seen so many musicians move here, because of not only the festival but all the stuff that happens around it,” Truelsen told me. “A lot of artists are introduced to a widespread audience through Rhythm and Roots, and I've seen so many artists over the years sort of launch after (that), which is really cool to see.”
Amythyst Kiah is a prime example. As a graduate of East Tennessee State University’s Bluegrass, Old-Time and Country Music degree program, she based in nearby Johnson City and became a perennial at Bristol, playing to ever bigger crowds until she landed this year’s debut on Rounder Records. She’s also in the vanguard of a new generation of black folk and roots artists. One of her sets last weekend took place before a large crowd in the lovely Cumberland Square Park on a permanent stage framed by weeping willows with a creek behind it and lights strung across a spacious lawn.
Completing a full circle last weekend were Virginia homeboys Folk Soul Revival, whose Saturday night Piedmont Stage set was its official swan song after 13 consecutive Reunions. The Bristol Herald Courier quoted co-founder Daniel Davis from the stage: “We started out for fun and, honestly, one of the goals was to play at Rhythm & Roots. It’s definitely cool for it to be the last show. We didn’t plan that, but it’s cool it worked out that way.”
Hoping she’s on a similar trajectory is Beth Snapp, a favorite discovery of my weekend. Her affable and well-crafted folk pop was supported by an acoustic band with drums, so it had poetry and propulsion. Snapp’s job as an occupational therapist in a hospital made for a hard spell recently. In February of 2020 she contracted Covid-19 while traveling before hardly anybody else did, an infection that robbed her of her voice for months. Then the pandemic surges overwhelmed her work life. But Bristol, she told me, has been a beacon and inspiration as she’s pursued her indie music career.
“Rhythm & Roots was one of those things that I really never thought I would get to play. And then it kind of became a dream,” she said. “Then I got on some of the smaller stages as a very small act. And as the years have progressed, I have been fortunate to kind of grow with the stages and grow my band, and it's just kind of become a part of my history.”
The 2021 comeback edition of the Reunion festival was vital for its host non-profit and its host city, for reasons that spanned the financial to the spiritual. But it came against the backdrop of the spreading Delta variant of Covid in a part of the country with especially low vaccine uptake. Truelsen said there were weeks of uncertainty about whether it was all a go or no go. Meanwhile some other festivals have struggled. Lexington’s Railbird was beset by logistical snafus that caused a storm of ire on social media, and organizers had to apologize and scramble. DelFest had to announce a last-minute cancellation when its event services partner couldn’t hire enough staff to safely and effectively stage the event.
Bristol’s biggest hurdle was a late breaking talent crisis, also sparked by Covid. Organizers decided not to require vaccine proof or Covid tests for entry after one of the Bristols (they declined to say which one) balked at the policy. That led headliners Jason Isbell and Yola to cancel their dates. Local breakout songwriter Morgan Wade had also vowed only to perform to vaccine-only crowds. Then Tanya Tucker canceled for unrelated travel reasons. A scramble found some substitutes in country star John Anderson, who performed a seated acoustic songwriter set, and groove/funk entertainer Cory Wong. Numerous Bristol ticket-holders asked for refunds as a result, and the crowd, while robust, was down noticeably from previous years.
For those of us there, that proved a boon, allowing more social distance in the streets and in front of the stages. My first set, with a lovely sunset over our shoulders bathing the State Street Stage in golden hour light, was California’s Madison Cunningham, for me the most exceptional songwriter/guitarist of her generation. With her advanced harmonic ideas and deeply intricate electric guitar work, plus the support of expert electric bass and drums, she offers Joni Mitchell’s lyrical grace over powerfully syncopated music.
Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley are longtime friends of the festival, and one should count Johnson City-born guitarist and singer Hensley among the locals boosted by Bristol. They’re one of the most polished and thrilling acoustic acts in the business, and they sounded like heaven in the Paramount Theater, which is an official festival stage. It’s a reverent, beautiful hall and the duo’s set closing, seven-minute super jam on “Friend Of The Devil” sounded perfect.
Sierra Ferrell is one of 2021’s breakout roots stars, and her sets showed why, with a vocal power and hard-charging, gypsy-derived swing even more scintillating than what you can hear on her Rounder Records debut Long Time Coming. The SteelDrivers sounded more than at home in front of a very large State Street Stage audience, where I came away convinced that new, young lead singer Kelvin Damrell is at least as good as their prior, supposedly peerless vocalists. John R. Miller, yet another new artist on Rounder, was another late addition to the depleted Bristol lineup, but he was just the right pick, with his wry, observant country music.
BJ Barham’s American Aquarium of Raleigh, NC kicked it hard on Saturday at happy hour, perfect timing for the adjacent Bristol Station, one of at least four breweries or taprooms that have popped up in central Bristol in recent years. I discovered the Jakob’s Ferry Stragglers, a versatile and joyful newgrass quintet out of Pennsylvania energized by singing/flatpicking Gary Antol and singing/fiddling Libby Eddy. (Come for the originals, stay for the bluegrass Fleetwood Mac covers.) Jonathan Scales brought his steel pans and his tight funk jazz fusion unit to the stages. I missed Kris Truelsen and Bill and the Belles hosting their revival Bristol radio show Farm & Fun Time, but I did get to see one of the broadcast’s guest artists, Dori Freeman, a superb and much-admired Galax, VA songwriter who released her fourth album on the Friday of the event. I also enjoyed the romantic flourishes and stellar musicianship of couple/duo Sally & George, local heroes of country rock 49 Winchester and passionate Nashville road warriors Great Peacock.
Downtown Bristol is a fascinating place to stroll from stage to stage. The grid of State and its cross streets is broken up by a sort of plaza at Piedmont Ave. where the tasty Burger Bar hangs its neon sign. The streetscape is like a 20th century architecture showcase, with facades representing every decade going back to 1900. It’s a southern city of brick industrial buildings, faded wall signs, arched windows and decorative cornices. The cross streets are full of nooks and crannies, staggered rooflines and mysterious rear windows. And then there’s the State Street promenade, with its many heavy brass plaques marking the Tennessee Virginia border smack in the middle of the double yellow line. The vendors were a motley bunch, with hippie tie-die boutiques, a maker of guitar pick jewelry, Appalachian Hemp Solutions and something to do with tinctures and witchcraft. I didn’t ask for more information.
The weather was perfect. Organizers came away relieved and satisfied. The Reunion should be counted in the top ten most influential and enriching festivals in roots music. Its two decades of growth coincide with the rise of Americana music itself as a successful concert and festival format. With its location in the heart of a rural region rich in country music talent and history, it’s helped burnish Americana’s integrity as a music field that doesn’t only rely on or reflect the cosmopolitan values that suffuse the upcoming Nashville AmericanaFest. At the same time, Bristol’s heritage has never been more relevant. The 1927 recordings received lavish attention in 2019’s Country Music PBS documentary series by Ken Burns. A new compilation, We Shall All Be Reunited: Revisiting Bristol Sessions 1927-1928, embraces Peer’s lesser known 1928 recordings and includes deep notes by ETSU professor Ted Olson that bring nuance and new context to the story. They’ll celebrate the 95th anniversary of the Big Bang when Rhythm & Roots reconvenes in the Fall of 2022.