Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion Festival Honors The Past & Celebrates The Present

“On State Street, that great street…”

Sinatra might’ve been singing about Chicago in this classic golden oldie (which even precedes him), but that feel-good energy enveloped my mind as I found myself strolling down Bristol’s famed street, indulging in the vivid sights and sounds taking place throughout.

The Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion was underway for its 21st Annual celebration on September 9th to the 11th this year, and it hit the mark once again, proving to be one of the premiere city block party music festivals in the country. And despite some adverse weather here and there, the good times and good music were found at every corner.

As a newcomer, it can be delightfully overwhelming, as there were 17 stages and over 100 acts, and it takes time to learn where everything is happening. One thing is for certain- you sure as hell get your steps in. So when planning your 2023 trip, scrap any cardio workout plans you may have had planned that week. 

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The Del McCoury Band – Photo by Billie Wheeler

This was the case for me last year, as I did a lot of zig-zagging around, but my routes were far more precise this time. Whether it be the State Street Stage, Piedmont Stage, Country Mural Stage, Cumberland Park Stage or the many others, I had a much better grasp on my navigation. It was a much smoother affair.

And despite the “country” moniker attached to the festival, as it is facilitated by The Birthplace of Country Music organization, there is a rich array of acts rolling through.

Maybe you want to hear some semi-psychedelic indie pop-rock? Go check out Aaron Lee Tasjan at the Cameo Theater or maybe Briston Maroney at the Cumberland Park Stage. In the mood for some rock and roll? Take a stroll to watch Asleep At The Wheel on the Piedmont Stage or Fantastic Negrito throw down at the Cumberland Park Stage. And naturally a majority of folks want that traditional country music, in which case you can watch Tanya Tucker swig tequila on the State Street Stage, or maybe Bill and The Belles on the Piedmont Stage, or perhaps The Del McCoury Band at the Paramount Theater. The options are plentiful.

The palpable sense of bliss and happiness is always something to savor as you make your way into the block party chock full of food trucks, vendors, and multiple street performers interspersed. It’s a dual-state shindig for the ages.

Tanya Tucker – Photo by Sophie Harris

The night before she was set to play the 6th Street stage, we got the chance to talk with Emily Scott Robinson, who released her debut album, American Siren, with John Prine’s Oh Boy Records last year, and recently put out her newest single, “Built On Bones,” September 12th.

Robinson’s story as to how she got signed to Oh Boy sounds like something out of a poorly written daytime television show. One day she happened upon a DM on Instagram from label head honcho Jody Whelan, who expressed his interest in her music and bringing her on board.

“It came at a time that was so surprising for me. It was Fall of 2020, I had written and released a song called ‘The Time For Flowers,’ which is my pandemic song. And [Whelan] said he was out for a hike in Nashville when my song popped up on his Spotify. He essentially said if we could ever help you we would love to. I happened to have another record I was almost done writing, I had just lined up a producer and studio, and the next day I got that message. It was crazy. The universe was like alright, you’re ready.”

It was Robinson’s first time playing the Bristol festival or being in Bristol at all for that matter, and her excitement was palpable. She expressed being happy to be back near her roots, which are in North Carolina. “It’s going to be really lovely. The audiences are really awesome here.”

Robinson has her upcoming sophomore record, Built On Bones, dropping October 28th. She described it as a concept album that consists of “songs for the witches of Macbeth.”

Emily Scott Robinson – Photo by Billie Wheeler

The morning before he was set to perform on the Piedmont Stage, the hardest working man in country music Jim Lauderdale sat down with us. Lauderdale recently released his 35th(!) album, Game Changer, this past August, and already has others in the works. When asked if he could rattle off all 35, he said, “I very slowly could, yeah,” with a smile.

When asked about how his new album differed from recent previous ones, he told us, “With my last three electric albums, two of them lean towards the country side, and have some eclectic stuff in there. My last one, Hope, rocks a little more. That was my pandemic album, and I wanted to get uplifting feelings out there. Game Changer is more focused towards traditional country, and pushing the envelope a little bit, but still trying to write in that framework.”

He is currently recording an album with Lillie Mae and Frank Rische. “We’re still looking for a name, but we’ve recorded about 14 tunes,” he told us. The enticing new trio is hoping to put out a new single in a month or two. 

Lauderdale spoke of deeply missing the late great Robert Hunter, whom he wrote some songs with. “I miss him so badly as a person and as a collaborator,” he told us. “As a lyricist it’ll be hard to beat him.” He mentioned carrying his spirit with him throughout his own songwriting and thinking to himself, “Would he like this?” Hunter passed away in September of 2019 at age 78.

In regards to playing the famed Bristol event, he told us, “There’s something different about this festival. It’s really cool to be in this historic place, and I feel the spirit of the people who came here for the Bristol Sessions. For me, it’s still here,” he said. 

Jim Lauderdale – Photo by Sophie Harris

Lauderdale also spoke of recording a modern Bristol Sessions record that pays homage to the legendary 1927 “big bang of country music” sessions that gave way to the city’s historical fame.

“I want to produce a new Bristol Sessions-type album over in the Sessions Hotel, and gather a bunch of regional people and some others who want to record new material in that style.” He said he’s looking to have the wheels in motion come 2023. 

Finally, he mentioned his focus on putting out music on his own label, Sky Crunch. With his own label, he reduces pressure for deadlines and can manage his own schedule a bit better. Game Changer was the first album on Sky Crunch records. “I kind of want to put out too much stuff,” he said. “At this stage of my life and career, I want to do what I want to do. Let the chips fall where they may.” 

When asked if he spreads himself too thin with all these projects, he smiled and quickly said, “Yes. I’ve kind of overdone it, but maybe in about a month I can take a breather.”

The Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion festival is a one-of-a-kind experience in being able to pinball around the happening downtown area, which acts as a more wholesome ma and pa friendly Broadway in Nashville. The community itself is as warm as the southern summer sun, and the smiles are as bountiful as the cowboy boots, hats, tanktops, and sundresses.

The festival would wrap up with Rosanne Cash taking the State Street Stage on Sunday evening, putting a bow on yet another year of cultural and regional celebration.

Until next year, Bristol.

State Street – Photo by Billie Wheeler

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