Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion 20th Anniversary (by Mason Winfree)
Lights illuminated the landmark sign that straddles the Tennessee-Virginia line, declaring the twin cities of Bristol, ‘A Good Place to Live’, as music filled the streets commencing the 20th annual Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion on the night of Friday, September 10, 2021. Strangers and friends gathered in the heart of the conjoined cities to celebrate Bristol’s important musical heritage and the lasting impact of the pioneering 1927 recording sessions that took place there.
Famously known as the ‘Birthplace of Country Music’, Bristol was the location for the Ralph Peer 1927 recording sessions that discovered Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family; an event that essentially opened the door to the Country music industry. Now, 94 years later, the lasting legacy of those sessions still reverberates throughout the region and beyond, as performers and music lovers return every year to the historic site to carry on the traditions that were forever encapsulated at those initial recording sessions.
First held following the September 11th attacks in 2001, the inaugural Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion was an event that signified togetherness against a landscape recovering from trauma. Twenty years later, the festival once again served as a site for community amidst a tragic time in our history. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in last year’s Rhythm & Roots to be cancelled, and this year’s to be plagued with uncertainty. From artist cancellations to patron refunds, it was somewhat of a miracle getting the festival back on track, but the festival organizers managed to pull it off. Coincidentally, the 20th anniversary of Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion coincided with the anniversary of the September 11th attacks, establishing an even greater parallel to the inaugural event.
Kicking off Friday evening, Kris Truelsen hosted a special outdoor version of Farm and Fun Time, a historic radio program that now airs as a television show on PBS throughout the Appalachian region, promoting traditional Country, Bluegrass and Old-Time musical artists that typically broadcasts from the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. For safety purposes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, The Farm and Fun Time show was moved from the Paramount Theater to the outside Country Mural stage, right next to the popular mural painted by Tim White honoring the Bristol Sessions. Featuring Truelsen’s band, Bill and the Belles, the Farm and Fun Time show showcased singer-songwriter Dori Freeman (who was celebrating the release of her latest album Ten Thousand Roses), old time banjo prodigy Nora Brown, and Appalachian folk phenom Sierra Ferrell.
‘Farm and Fun Time has typically been a theater show at Rhythm & Roots over the past six years; usually packing out the Paramount Theater as one of the things to not miss at the festival’ Truelsen said of the Farm and Fun Time show. ‘This year, with the state of things, it felt appropriate to move the program outdoors which presented some new challenges as this was our first outdoor filming of the show. Still, I was so happy we were able to do it and was grateful to have such a strong list of artists, all of which happened to be some of the strongest on-the-rise female Country and Roots voices. Not to mention, they were all friends of mine which made the show particularly relaxed and enjoyable. In pairing Sierra, Dori, Nora, and Bill and The Belles, we effectively captured a large range of what country can represent. All artists are totally fresh and individually unique yet rooted in tradition’.
Following the Farm and Fun Time show, Amythyst Kiah, an alumna of East Tennessee State University’s Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Country Music degree program, kicked off an hour-long set at Cumberland Square Park, masterfully bridging the gap between Alt Rock and Old-Time music which drew in a huge crowd. As a rising star, Kiah has accomplished quite a bit in the past couple of years, such as signing to Rounder Records and releasing the critically acclaimed album, Wary + Strange, as well as co-forming the string-band supergroup, Our Native Daughters, with Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell. Amythyst Kiah is a prime example of the impressive talent emerging from the heart of the Appalachian region, and her powerful performances secured her place as one of the most talked about acts at Rhythm & Roots.
Friday night also saw the return of John Anderson to the festival, presenting an intimate, stripped-down, set at the State Street stage, performing by himself with one accompanist. Anderson’s appearance was announced after Tanya Tucker pulled out of the festival due to travel complications. Having not appeared at Rhythm & Roots since 2015, festival goers were excited for his return. The crowd enthusiastically sang along to his hits, “Swingin’”, “Straight Tequila Night”, and “Wild and Blue” as the landmark Bristol sign sparkled against the freshly dimmed sky directly behind the stage.
Just down the street from the State Street stage, The Blue Ridge Girls made their debut Bristol Rhythm & Roots performance at Borderline Billiards. Featuring multi-instrumentalists Brett Morris, Martha Spencer, and Bristol’s very own Jamie Collins. Combining traditional numbers with original tunes, master picking, and rhythmic flatfoot dancing, The Blue Ridge Girls epitomize the vast traditions of the Appalachian Mountains. All three members were born into musical families, inheriting a passion to push the tradition forward, and each brings to the table their own unique flair that, when combined together, creates an exceptionally unique interpretation of mountain music. Seeing The Blue Ridge Girls live is like getting a history lesson of what Appalachian music is all about, and it is for that reason that I actually missed the tail end of John Anderson’s set to catch their performance.
‘I’m usually not at a loss for words’ says Collins after the festival. ‘It’s surreal for me. I feel at home with The Blue Ridge Girls. With all three of us brought up in the musical traditions of Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee, we have a special connection like family. Bringing them to Bristol is a reunion with my hometown and my roots in the music. It is a comforting feeling knowing that the music that was passed on from our families will carry on to future generations and in our future communities. Music brings us all together and makes us feel like we are where we belong’.
Another regional act that made a big splash at Rhythm & Roots was 49 Winchester from Russell County, Virginia. The group played each day, including an incendiary performance in front of a packed crowd on the State Street stage Saturday afternoon. Festival goers were dancing in the streets and singing along to songs from the group’s latest album, III, including “Long Hard Life” and “Everlasting Lover”. Freshly signed to New West Records, 49 Winchester is a group that has grown and evolved on the stages of Bristol Rhythm & Roots over the years, and if their live performances are any indication, we will be seeing a lot more of them in the years to come.
A personal highlight from Saturday’s lineup included a performance from Nashville’s Kelsey Rae, originally from Abingdon, Virginia. Her setlist included classic Honky Tonk numbers such as Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and Patsy Cline’s “Honky Tonk Merry Go Round” as well as originals like her commentary on virtual performative behavior in “Social Media”. Owning one of the best voices I have heard of any genre, Kelsey Rae’s set harkened back to the golden years of Country music and exhibited the qualities that truly make the genre great. Featuring an all-star cast of supporting musicians including Martha Spencer and Third Man Records’ Lillie Mae, Kelsey Rae’s set stands out as one of the best of the weekend.
Sunday featured a trifecta of great talent on the Piedmont stage starting with Richmond, Virginia’s Woody Woodworth & The Piners who made their debut at this year’s Rhythm & Roots. The group, who had previously cut a record in Bristol, tapped into the city’s history during their performance, including a Carter Family tune in their set called, “Bear Creek”.
‘This was our first time playing Rhythm & Roots’ frontman Woody Woodworth said after the festival. ‘I’m not sure how we got here. Grateful is the word I keep returning to. The festival was coming to a close. I wasn’t sure anyone would come see us. Charley Crockett stood backstage as we sound checked the John Prine tune “Spanish Pipedream”. I chatted with Jim Lauderdale just before we headed on stage. He wished us luck! Surreal. Standing what seemed to be 20-feet-tall, atop the Piedmont stage, I was completely humbled to be standing where so many talented artists have stood. Looking down on Piedmont Avenue, I felt possessed by something larger than myself. It might have been nerves, sheer embrace of the moment, or just knowing I was performing in a sacred place; just a few feet from the last place Hank Williams was seen alive. One after another we were on a roll, and people started to come by. I noticed folks tapping their feet and dancing to our tunes. Before I knew it, it was over. I wanted it to last forever. I hope we can grace the Piedmont stage again’.
After Woody Woodworth and the Piners set, Town Mountain from Asheville, North Carolina graced the Piedmont stage with their own inimitable take on bluegrass music. With a setlist featuring originals and interpretations of classics such as Townes Van Zandt’s “Snowin’ On Raton” and Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire”, Town Mountain demonstrated their versatility as a group preserving and expanding on a rich American musical tradition. Completing the trifecta of talent on Sunday’s Piedmont stage was Charley Crockett, a vagabond of mythic proportions. Mixing Texas Honky Tonk with New Orleans Blues and R&B, Crockett brought his keen sense of style and undeniable swagger to his electrifying performance proving that he is indeed one fine entertainer.
Other honorable mentions that I had the pleasure of seeing at this year’s festival include American Aquarium, Hogslop String Band, Jim Lauderdale, Fritz & Co., Momma Molasses, and Tyler Hughes, who all gave great performances, brilliantly exemplifying the traditions that they uphold. Festival mainstay, Folk Soul Revival, gave their final performance on Saturday night in a poignant farewell on the Piedmont stage Saturday night. To play Bristol Rhythm & Roots was initially just a goal for the band who formed in 2008; and culminating in their final performance, the band played Rhythm & Roots 12 consecutive times. As with the case of Folk Soul Revival, Bristol Rhythm & Roots is a festival that inspires artists and upholds tradition. Seeing the return of the festival following last year’s cancellation, bringing together musicians and music lovers for a weekend of communal camaraderie in reverence to the music that was made there, the words of a Carter Family classic still ring true for it is evident that the ‘circle will remain unbroken’. (by Mason Winfree)
Please visit the Bristol Rhythm & Roots website for more information
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