The Infamous Stringdusters at the 2017 Rhythm & Roots Reunion – photo by Teresa Gereaux
Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion was true to its roots. There was one moment from the Jesse McReynolds and the Virginia Boys set on Sunday afternoon that took the audience all the way back to the “big bang of country music.” About halfway into his set, McReynolds took out his grandfather’s fiddle and played Johnny Goodwin (also known as The Girl I left Behind). The audience at the Country Mural Stage, just a few doors away from where Ralph Peer recorded in 1927, was captivated to watch the 88-year-old McReynolds recreate the song his grandfather recorded 90 years ago.
The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers were discovered from the Bristol Sessions and the recordings launched the country music genre. Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion is one of the ways the city still celebrates its place in music history.
Several shows during the festival weekend centered on the music created in those historic sessions. Hello Stranger features Dale Jett, a descendant of the Carter Family. His show, usually featuring a few numbers on autoharp, really evokes The Carter Family.
At the official 90th anniversary show, an all-star cast presented many of the songs from that 1927 session. And as usual in this town that loves its musical legacy, when the Carter Family’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken was played, the entire crowd joined in song.
Jerry Douglas’ Earls of Leicester was another group that took the bluegrass loving audience back to their roots. Most everyone in the audience knew the words to nearly every song. From the look and the sound, the entire band does a fantastic job of recreating the Flatt and Scruggs experience. Jerry Douglas said Johnny Warren, the fiddle player, is the band’s direct DNA to Flatt and Scruggs. His father, the late Paul Warren, played with the classic Foggy Mountain Boys for years. Johnny even plays his father’s fiddle for the authentic sound.
The Country Mural stage was the weekend home to many bluegrass acts, such as the Becky Buller Band. Buller showed audiences why she’s the IBMA award winner for songwriter, fiddler and vocalist of the year. Buller’s set included favorites Phoenix Arise and The Windowsill Song and wrapped up with a beautiful a capella rendition of I Serve a God.
The Mark O’Connor Band was another popular grass show, featuring triple fiddles at one point. Lonesome River Band also presented an exceptional show.
The mural wasn’t the only stage to feature bluegrass. The Infamous Stringdusters blew audiences away on Friday night at the Cumberland Park stage. The Stringdusters are a festival favorite and many in the crowd were glad to see them back after several years. Their show featured old favorites like Fork in the Road, songs from their new album, Laws of Gravity, and bluegrass favorites like Uncle Pen.
Billy Strings is another progressive bluegrasser who wowed crowds at both the Cumberland Park and Country Mural Stage. He is a lightning fast picker. Despite his youth and progressive take, he honors the music and is clearly a big bluegrass lover himself.
Dwight Yoakam drew the largest crowd of the festival on Friday night. He apologized early on for being under the weather. Yoakam had cancelled the previous night’s show in Kentucky because of a respiratory infection. Despite the illness, he put on a great show and the crowd loved his honky tonk set.
Rodney Crowell was scheduled to be another headliner but he dropped out a few weeks ago due to a health issue.
Bristol Rhythm includes so much music, it’s impossible to catch it all. You see a great weekend of music and you leave at least another full weekend unheard because of competing shows. But if you don’t like what you hear, you just have to walk up the street a ways and there’s another show – or ten. Need to break for coffee or a bite to eat? Stop in to a restaurant and hear great bands. You can even grab a bite at the Burger Bar on the Virginia side. Legend has it that’s where Hank Williams had his last meal (or skipped his last meal) before he died.
The lineup of bands included many national and regional acts with roots in the TriCities area around Bristol. Those bands included Jesse McReynolds, who grew up near Coeburn; Lonesome River Band, fronted by Sammy Shelor who is from SWVA), Amythyst Kiah, who was featured on the Blue Plate Special; and The Steeldrivers lead singer Tammy Rogers is from Rogersville, TN. Other strong local acts include Annabelle’s Curse, J.P. Parsons and American Bandwagon, Folk Soul Revival, and Carson Peters and Iron Mountain.
A little about the festival environment. Situated in downtown Bristol, it spans several blocks along State Street and adjoining streets. Venues include large outdoor street stages, small restaurants, coffee shops and bars, as well as many small and mid-sized outdoor stages. The Paramount Center for the Arts is the prime indoor venue. The beautifully restored theater features popular shows, air conditioning, and a respite from the sun – and the best festival restrooms in the country.
Also included in the festival is the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, a wonderful facility dedicated to the history of American music as it began in Bristol on radio and those early recordings. The museum is a great respite from the busy festival or a reason to come back for another visit to Bristol. The museum also hosts Radio Bristol, several classic country and Americana stations. During the festival, Radio Bristol featured several live shows by the likes of Infamous Stringdusters, Langhorne Slim and the O’Connor Family. You can listen to Radio Bristol anytime online.
It’s worth mentioning the wonderfully symbolic start to the festival situation right on the Virginia-Tennesee state line. The Amateurs kicked off Rhythm and Roots on the State Street Stage. Senator Tim Kaine (Democrat from Virginia) and Senator Lamar Alexander (Republican from Tennessee) joined forces with a local bluegrass group to create The Amateurs. Their set list was equally bipartisan: Turn Your Radio On, Keep on the Sunny Side from the Carter family, I Saw the Light (complete with a train passing by), Hard Times Come No More and The Tennessee Waltz. Senator Alexander talked about finding the original score for The Tennessee Waltz, written on the back of a matchbook, when he was Governor. The original was given to the University of Tennessee but he had a few copies made. He presented one of those, which he described as the “magna carta of country music” to Leah Ross for the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.
If you missed this festival, mark your calendar for next year or better yet, head on down to Bristol now. Although State Street won’t be closed, you can still spend your afternoon at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum – a treasure trove for music and history lovers – and then walk down State Street and catch a local or national band at one of the many venues and restaurants where the music is always playing.