In 1927, songwriters like Jimmie Rodgers, The Carter Family, and others felt they had a style of music worth recording and sharing with like-minded folks. They decided Bristol, Tennessee, would be the place to make this happen.
Little did they know they would be inspiring generations to come and fueling the Bristol arts community some 100 years later.
Today, those legendary Bristol Recording Sessions have become the catalyst of why Bristol, Tennessee/Virginia, is now officially known by government designation as The Birthplace of Country Music with a subsequent organization of the same name.
The organization, which is said to have been spearheaded and brought to fruition by artist and muralist Tim White and community arts pioneer Leah Ross, maintains a museum dedicated to these sessions and the artists who took their music to town. An affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, the award-winning Birthplace of Country Music Museum shares the story of the legendary 1927 Bristol Sessions, and explores how those recordings helped to usher country music into the mainstream.
Aside from the museum and educational outreach programs, the organization also hosts the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion festival, this year acting as the 20th Anniversary.
Taking place this past weekend, September 10th to September 12th, The Birthplace of Country Music transformed Bristol’s downtown into a celebratory homage, christening the city streets with 13 stages, roughly 100 acts, and dozens of unique local vendors and food trucks.
Headliners included Blackberry Smoke, The SteelDrivers, Dr. Dog, Rhonda Vincent, Hayes Carll, and others. However, due to current societal circumstances, a handful of headliners and mid-tier artists pulled out. Jason Isbell, Tanya Tucker, Yola, and several others yanked the plug on the festival, likely creating headaches abound for the festival curators and disappointing fans, but it’s an entirely understandable and surely difficult decision.
Alas, the weather was beautiful this particular Friday afternoon when the festival got underway, and while the streets and avenues had many people afoot, it never felt overwhelming, and one could avoid thick clusters of people. Of course wearing a mask was highly encouraged.
In walking through the gates past the museum and The Bristol Hotel, you had the Cumberland Stage off to your left in a city park chock full of trees, military memorials, and a huge elevated fighter jet (surely some more specific aviary term than that) as the centerpiece.
To your right was the entry to the rest of the wonderland.
Down the gauntlet of savory delights I strolled, past all the food trucks where wafts of gyros, fried rice, and fried gator greeted my nose. At the premiere State Street Stage was Madison Cunningham who serenaded me for a bit before I waltzed down the main drag that is indeed State Street.
Lining the perimeter of the street were unique local vendors like Aurora Medical Massage, Savannah’s Witchy Shit, Nomadic Graphics, Appalachian Alchemy, $5 Bling, and numerous others hawking T-shirts, crafts, caricatures, and everything else. Music emanated from various bars along the way like Delta Blues Bar, O’ Mainnin’s Pub & Grille, State Street Brewing, and many places in between. It had a very Broadway-meets-Bourbon Street vibe, but with much better smells and more respectful patrons.
Streets that shot off of State like 6th, 7th, and Piedmont had their respective stages, and towards the end of the main drag was one of the most magnificent murals I’d ever seen. Spanning a large building was a collage-like depiction of the artists of the 1927 Bristol sessions like Jimmie Rodgers, The Carter Family, and others, with a big Victor vinyl record painted in the middle with the names and dates recorded.
Just past this was the Country Music Mural Stage, (naturally) which featured Radio Bristol’s Farm and Fun Time Show upon my arrival, which saw Sierra Ferrell serenading the crowd among others on stage with her. This would not be the last I’d see of Ferrell, thank God.
Other sets on Friday included Hogslop String Band, Folk Soul Revival, Amythyst Kiah, John R. Miller, Hayes Carll, John Anderson, The Steeldrivers, Ferrell’s own set, and probably two dozen others. These were but a few on our radar, and it was a frantic yet delightful night of running around downtown Bristol figuring out where to go, who to see, and for how long.
Amythyst Kiah was one act of the bunch that stood out. The power and tone behind both her electric guitar (which was badass with its gold-crested hardware and cream body) and acoustic guitar coupled with her mountain-shaking voice was a sight and sound to behold. Backing her up was an equally killer bassist and drummer who kept the groove high and tight. Kiah, who’s coming off her recent album, Wary + Strange, captivated the audience at the Cumberland Stage with her rock n’ roll soul songs, tender yet strong acoustic tunes, and the band’s often silky smooth lava lamp-like grooves. The Johnson City native was a star of the festival no doubt.
I caught up with festival favorite and Bristol R&R ambassador Jim Lauderdale, who had a stage with his namesake at the festival, and asked him how it felt to be back playing an event of this magnitude again. “It’s very chill, and the weather’s perfect. And I’ve already heard great stuff – the Farm and Fun Time Show and the variety of people they had. That’s what this festival is all about. To hear early acoustic music to me – no pun intended – it sets the stage. One cool thing about this is just getting to wander around a lot. People are very friendly.”
He went on to discuss the reason behind the festival and how it impacts him: “It’s inspiring to hear all this music for me. I feel like the spirit of these people that came in 1927 – some that didn’t really record that much and weren’t as well known – but that their music lives on in the air and the atmosphere. So it’s kind of connected with those people and these buildings that pre-dated it. It’s just a unique festival.”
With so many intriguing acts to catch, I could hardly make it to half of the ones I wanted to see. I would spend 20-30 minutes watching one act at the Cumberland Stage, and realize I had 15 minutes to catch another one I wanted to see a mile away at the Country Music Mural stage. Really, it was a good problem to have, and I sure as hell got my steps in. (thinking I walked around 12-15 miles or so in the course of a few days)
While listening to Cory Wong gripe to the masses about his issue-riddled soundcheck at the Cumberland Stage, I turned my attention to the nearby blue-collar-looking southern gentlemen who were playing the old timey classic, “Which Side Are You On?” on a little pop-up stage. One held down banjo while the other plucked guitar, and it was far more endearing than listening to Wong’s snarky displeasure with the sound crew.
After the duo got a modest round of applause from patrons seated on hay bails, I chatted with banjoist Tyler Hughes who educated me on the old song and what they’re representing. “[‘Which Side Are You On?’] was written in 1931 by Florence Reese, who was a coal miner’s wife that helped do Union work in Eastern Kentucky.” He went on to tell me about the pop-up situation. “We’re being hosted by The Crooked Road, which is Virginia’s heritage music trail that runs through Southwest Virginia. I’ve been a big partner with them for awhile, and I work as a community advocate. I’m also in local government down here. We’re trying to create a new economy and a new image around cultural arts here in the mountains.”
I again asked how it felt to be back and performing at an event of this magnitude. He laughed and went on to say, “Maybe a little nerve-wracking. It’s like the most people I’ve been around in over a year. It’s exciting, I’m glad we can do this, but still a bit nervous.”
Hayes Carll at the Piedmont Stage was another act that had the crowd buzzing. Honestly, I wasn’t too familiar with him, but a little birdie told me there was some juicy drama between him and Steve Earle, and that Carll had taken up with Earle’s ex-wife some odd years ago. Naturally Earle had some choice words to say and vice versa.
Either way, Carll delivered an array of gritty and tender Texas-bred tunes to a hungry audience. From a heartstring-tugging tune about his grandfather’s struggle with dementia, to the barn burnin’ outlaw track about convincing the cop that pulls you over you’re a person of faith with “Bible on the Dash” – to which he said he wrote with Canadian songwriter Corb Lund – Carll busted out a number of impressive songs.
“Can somebody tell me what state I’m in?” He said to the crowd. After everyone yells a mix of Tennessee and Virginia, he says, “Ah shit, I shouldn’t have asked that.”
Meanwhile down on 6th Street, Ferrell was getting her set started. Flanked by her mandolin player and perpetually smiling fiddle player with the stand-up bassist cast off behind, she worked her hypnotic magic over the crowd underneath gently twirling CD chandeliers that hovered over their heads.
She rattled off tunes from her new album, Long Time Coming, along with some choice covers that I greatly appreciated, like the honky tonk classic, “Dim Lights Thick Smoke,” and an incredibly mesmerizing cover of Charley Pride’s tune, “Snakes Crawl At Night,” which she played in a minor key. This song in particular conjured images of King Cobras slowly rising out of wicker baskets in a foreign land, as the sounds she made were nothing short of hypnotic and entrancing. Lots of serenading country waltz-type tracks, and a voice that can and will leave a trail of broken hearts.
Before I knew it, The Steeldrivers took the State Street Stage, and Day 1 was just about in the books. By this point in the night, I was running on empty, and rest was critical. As a first timer in Bristol let alone the festival, I was smitten. Considering what we’ve all been going through, this was a much needed respite, and despite some hiccups here and there, the environment and atmosphere were nothing short of magical- as if Jimmie Rodgers, The Carter’s, and the others were watching over everybody celebrating the beauty of what they started 100 years ago.
It would be an anticipatory slumber awaiting the joy of Day 2.