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Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion with Mason Winfree
The states of Virginia and Tennessee hold claim to some of the richest narratives in the history of American music. The annual Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion music festival taps into the importance of the legacies of both Virginia and Tennessee in the twin cities of Bristol. The event celebrates the 95th anniversary of the historic Bristol Sessions that featured the very first recordings of The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers which essentially jumpstarted the Country music industry. The 21st annual Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion was held September 9 thru 11, 2022 in the historic downtown on the appropriately titled State Street, for the main road straddles the line between the two states. The festival hosted 100 live music acts on more than a dozen stages showcasing various styles and traditions of Country music and beyond, putting legendary artists on the same stages as regional and local talent. The festival not only exhibits a variety of styles, but also a good representation of gender equality.
A study conducted by ‘female:pressure’ revealed that only 27% of music festival acts in 2020 and 2021 were women. The numbers are up 18% in comparison to 10 years ago, but there is still a long way to go before an even playing field is procured. Especially in Country music, where women remain largely underrepresented at festivals and on the radio. Four regional acts at this year’s Reunion demonstrated the eclectic mix of style and tradition that Country music has to offer. All four of the acts are fronted by women from the Blue Ridge and the Piedmont, solidifying that they are the future of Country music.
Kicking off the first of two sets at this year’s Reunion, the Blue Ridge Girls from Southwest Virginia took to the stage at Theatre Bristol and played before a packed house of fans and friends who were beyond thrilled to see the trio make their return to the Reunion. The Blue Ridge Girls are essentially a supergroup of regional Old Time and Bluegrass musicians, for all three of them have carved out a name for themselves outside the group. Hailing from the highest mountains of Virginia, Martha Spencer grew up playing in her family band called The Whitetop Mountain Band. Originally started by her uncle, Albert Hash, The Whitetop Mountain Band has existed in its various forms since the 1940s. With that, Spencer brings a vast history of mountain music passed down through her family, as well as traditional flatfoot dancing.
Speaking of dancing, Brett Morris, originally from Elk Creek Virginia is an award-winning flatfoot dancer that has taken home the 1st place ribbon for flatfoot dancing at the Old Fiddlers’ Convention in Galax. Morris was also born into a musical family. Her dad, Dale, is member of the Wolfe Brothers String Band, a group that has been making music together since 1993. Having been instilled at a young age with a love for the music around her, Morris has continued to pass the traditions down, now even serving as the Executive Director for an after-school program serving the region of Appalachia called Junior Appalachian Musicians – which teaches young people how to play traditional instruments, sing, and flatfoot dance. Rounding out the group as the third member of the Blue Ridge Girls is Jamie Collins, a native of Bristol, Tennessee; Collins was also inspired by the musicians in her own family.
It has been said that Collins’ dad, Tony, was one of the best flatpickers in the region, and his influence shows in the musical abilities of his daughter. Collins has been a fixture of the regional music scene for years, having performed with her family band, Heather and Tony Mabe, and the Rose Sisters as well Hot Trail Mix, the backing band for Old Crow Medicine Show’s Mason Via. All three members of the Blue Ridge Girls are multi-instrumentalists. During their show, they swapped instruments including the guitar, banjo, and bass. Spencer and Morris demonstrated flatfoot dancing on fiddle tunes offering a first-hand experience exhibiting where the genre we know as Country music came from and how those authentic mountain styles continue to be passed down through the generations. With an eclectic mix of traditional fiddle tunes and folk songs, the Blue Ridge Girls also played several originals including "Wildflowers" written by Morris, "Home is Where the Fiddle Rings," written by Spencer, and “Enjoy Life”, written by Collins which serves as the title track off of her new CD.
Aside from their two performances with the Blue Ridge Girls, Spencer and Collins also played in the backing band for Southwest Virginia’s Kelsey Rae, who is arguably one of the best singers in music, today. Rae gave an hour-long performance on the main State Street stage on Saturday morning – the same stage that the legendary Tanya Tucker had performed on the night before. Rae kicked off the show the opening number, “Wabash Cannonball”, substituting the opening lines with a special verse saying ‘it’s good to be back home again in Bristol, Tennessee/I’m awful glad to see you, hope you’re glad to see me’. And, boy, was the crowd happy to see her. Despite the rainy weather, dedicated fans and friends gathered along State Street to listen to the crystal-clear voice of Kelsey Rae as she sang songs handpicked from the history of country music including Jimmie Rodgers’ “Mule Skinner Blues”, Dolly Parton’s “Dumb Blonde”, and the Carter Family’s “I Never Will Marry”. Rae also played several original songs including “Fortune Teller” and “This Old Town” (a song that won her The Richard Leigh Songwriters’ Festival songwriting contest). Kelsey Rae is a unique talent in that her voice and presence makes one think that she is from a time gone by, and yet she sounds just as fresh as anything one would want to hear today. If presented with the opportunity to see her, please do, for you shall not regret it.
Just as two members of the Blue Ridge Girls supported Kelsey Rae during the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion, Kelsey Rae lends her talents to a trio consisting of Tricia Tripp and Bristol’s very own Momma Molasses – a group called Queens of Country. Bristol Rhythm and Roots should consider bringing the three of them together for the Reunion in the future, for they already had two of the three perform this year for solo sets. After Kelsey Rae’s performance, just down the street, Momma Molasses gave an hour-long performance at the outdoor space at Shanghai. Born in the Piedmont of North Carolina, and relocating to the Blue Ridge in Bristol, Momma Molasses possesses a voice that is distinctly her own. With her slight quiver and melodic whistle, Momma Molasses takes her name from a Michael Hurly song called “Eyes Eyes” and embodies it with her sultry magnetism that immediately connects her with audiences.
At Shanghai, Momma Molasses performed alongside Alex Ball on fiddle, Williams Skeens on guitar, and Cameron Ragsdale performing a mixture of original tunes and her own take on country and blues classics. From the 1920s blues number, “Stealin’”, to the Jimmie Rodgers original, “Blue Yodel No. 1 (T for Texas)”, Momma Molasses’ performance felt like a conduit to the past with all the history of Bristol emerging to life once more through her retrospective showcase of American folk music. Important to note that Momma Molasses is a radio DJ at WBCM Radio Bristol where she hosts FOLK YEAH, a show showcasing the plethora of vital folk music that reverberates throughout the generations; and, she also works at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.
Rounding out the group of regional performances is another artist from the Piedmont of North Carolina, Casey Noel. Offering audiences, a composite of blues rock and rootsy Americana, Noel shined in her debut Bristol Rhythm and Roots performance on stage at Borderline Billiards. With an EP, Not So Pretty Words, and two singles “Page 52” and “Playing God” Casey Noel has demonstrated her ability as a songwriter to cull out deeply embedded emotions that connect directly to her audience. Backed up by Mason Keck of Jive Mother Mary on electric guitar, Seth Aldridge on drums, and Will Lowe on bass, Casey Noel rocked out on her own interpretations of beloved classics like “Jambalya (On the Bayou)” as well as turning in soft melodic renditions of songs such as Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alight”. Hailing from the city of Greensboro, Casey Noel has tapped into many of the Southern musical traditions that have made the Piedmont a seminal place for roots music. Her voice easily shifts between a Joplin style growl and an angelic rasp that molds perfectly to the song that she is singing.
On Friday night of the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion, backstage after Tanya Tucker gave a powerhouse performance from the main stage under the glowing Bristol sign, Tucker joined The Blue Ridge Girls, Kelsey Rae, and Momma Molasses for a sing along of the song, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” which was recorded and is now surfacing online. Seeing the legend that is Tanya Tucker stand next to these ladies that are on the rise singing the seminal Carter Family Classic demonstrates that the tradition continues, and that the women of country music are the past, present, and future of country music. Be on the lookout for these artists that carry tradition forward and reinvent it for a whole new generation of music fans. Thank you, Bristol Rhythm and Roots for upholding the legacy of such a rich musical narrative in our history and giving these artists a platform to share what they do with all of us. (by Mason Winfree)
Please go to the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion website for more information
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