“Relief. It’s home. For me, it’s home. And you know what, given the nature of the pandemic, it’s as normal as normal can be right now. Music has a way. Music is a salve, man. It’s a salve for whatever hurts ya. It may not heal what hurts ya, but it’ll make you feel better.”
This is seasoned Bristol music journalist and local town historian Tom Netherland talking to me about how it feels to be partaking in an event of this magnitude again, and in his backyard no less. It was clear in his distinct appearance and aura he was a true blue server and disciple of music. Underneath his brown fedora was his shaggy graying hair and beard to match with a thick black Waylon Jennings bracelet, and some of the first things he told me was about his guitar string bracelets given to him by Billy Joe Shaver, Willie Nelson, Ronnie Wood, and others.
He went on to compare today’s issues with the opening of the Paramount Theater in Bristol in 1931, and the masses waiting to get in and see a Carole Lombard film. “And here’s the kicker: this was during The Great Depression. And yet people still turned out. The movie industry has never been more successful as it was during The Great Depression. And you said the word – escapism. People need an escape. They can’t just be bombarded with these horrible realities of life. We need some relief. I don’t know anything better than music. It works for me.”
In asking what makes Bristol so special in particular, Netherland said in a very matter of fact tone, “It’s the birthplace of country music. There are other things that Bristol has going for it, but the reason why Bristol is known around the world – and it is – is not because of the race track. No, it’s because of the music made here in July and August of 1927.”
Netherland had stories for days about Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Whisperin’ Bill Anderson, and all kinds of other people and places, and it was clear he he’d been around the block and dealt with it all. He was an encyclopedia of all things Bristol and The Birthplace of Country Music, and was an exceptional representative of what was going on and what went on.
On a day mixed with reflective mourning and eager anticipation, embracing the present with the sun shining down was all that seemed to matter, and all anyone could do.
Being that it was the 20th Anniversary of 9/11, there was something of a somber feel, yet simultaneously a more present longing to brighter days ahead; days where we aren’t ravaged in mind, spirit, and body by the ongoing pandemic.
Throughout the festival, homage was paid with flags and signs, and compounded with the current state of things, I also think it made people that much more appreciative of the joys and freedoms they were experiencing. All because of the universal gatherer that is music.
When it all goes to hell, music will always be there.
Holding down a pop up stage by the food vendors seemed to be the same band of young teenagers I’d seen all night Friday and again on Saturday. I’d heard some “Sharp Dressed Man”, “Friends In Low Places,” and select other cover tunes that were ripe with youthful, coming-of-age energy.
16-year-old Shelton Tyson from Knoxville appeared to be fronting the group, Highway 10, who had a deep well of covers under their respective belts, and despite being a small set up in a big operation, they had folks stopping to check them out. “We’re working on some original songs, but right now we’re just a cover band, and hopefully here in the near future we’ll be an original band,” he told me with eagerness in his eyes. Ahh youthful aspirations, hopes, and dreams. Godspeed, Shelton.
Flanking each side of the State Street Stage I’d noticed two big fabric (mesh?) green signs in the breeze during Great Peacock’s set. On the left it read, “Pickin’ Ain’t Easy,” in big text, with “But getting vaccinated is,” in smaller text below it. On the right side it read, “For the Love of Music,” in large text, with “Get vaccinated,” below it. It was encouraging to see messages like that in a state that is allegedly a persistent Covid hotspot. Also flying were two big American flags just beyond the stages, also on each side. There was no doubt a feel of pride and patriotism in the air.
While acknowledging flags and signs around me, rock n’ roll soul quintet Great Peacock hammered out some heavy duty tunes. Despite their name, they were not for the birds.
Their riffs came in as hot as the blistering sun, and while in a normal club setting with this band, the pit would likely be chock full of movers and shakers, head bangs and hoorays, but on this particular afternoon, the crowd was loaded with cozy elders in their Adirondack chairs. Not strictly, but they were most prevalent. Mind you some folks were moving and grooving. The age demographic was indeed apparent, though. Surely for Great Peacock the old timers had to take their hearing aides out, or at the very least crank them down.
Donning his white blazer and shirt with a (maybe) Stetson cowboy hat, frontman Andrew Nelson began to let loose during a 5 o’ clock rock n’ roll jamboree, facing the drummer and headbanging until his beloved cap took to the wind. The heavy rock was being served, and it was being served piping hot and fresh off the grill. The guys continued to shred like Covid wanted to ruin their lives and take away their passion, and they’d be damned if they were going to let it. Hell, for all they know, this could be there last show. This was something I think artists were and are quite cognizant of, naturally. Play like it’s your last show- ‘cause it very well might be.
On the contrary, down at the Country Music Mural Stage was a much, much different scene. Had you closed your eyes and wished upon a star, you might just think you’d been transported back to 1941.
Bill and The Belles delivered some of the most profound and authentic old timey country roots music at the whole festival. Donned in all white with a red bandana tied around his neck and white cowboy hat to match, “Bill” (Kris Truelsen) and his Belles serenaded the many perched on seats and on the lawn. Flanked tightly to his sides were his banjo and fiddle player, and the three of them sung sweet, sweet lullaby-laden harmonies into the circular old-school looking mic.
Truelsen had admitted Jiminy Cricket (and the voice actor behind the character) and old, original Disney had been an influence on his artistry, and he had written his own version of “Wish Upon A Star,” which was a beautiful, delicate song that could puncture even the coldest of hearts. Every so often I would look back at the Jimmie Rodgers mural displaying his excitable two thumbs-up, and thought surely he was pleased with Bill and his Belles. You done ‘em proud, Bill (Kris).
On my way back to the Cumberland Stage, I asked a few passersby some questions.
I spoke to a lovely local Bristol woman named Cheri, who when asked how long she’d been coming to the festival, she said, “You know we didn’t come for probably the first ten years, but we haven’t missed one since. It’s awesome. I buy my whole family tickets every year for Christmas for the next festival. And I get everyone’s Christmas presents done in one place.” She laughed after this sentiment. So much for surprises, Cheri!
I then asked her and her friend who she was most excited to see this year. “This year I like Hogslop String Band. They are awesome. They’re so good. I’ve seen them at The Carter Family Fold, and here, and they’re just the best.”
I then talked to a man named Chuck from Gray, TN, who rocked an Elvis shirt that read, “Good Music Doesn’t Have An Expiration Date,” who had been going to the festival for four or five years. I asked what draws him to this festival in particular, and he told me, “I love the music. Just the variety and the artists that you haven’t heard of. Seeing somebody new.”
When asked who he was most excited to see, he very quickly and decisively answered, “Blackberry Smoke, I mean come on. But 49 Winchester is another one. Outstanding, man. Folk Soul Revival, too.” I’d heard a lot about 49 Winchester over the course of the weekend.
At this point a fellow patron walks by in a Southern Rebellion shirt, and Chuck’s wife points it out. “Our son’s in that band,” Chuck says proudly.
Lastly, I asked him what makes the festival so special. “The way they set it up is really good. The way they block off the streets and have all the stages. Like it’s loud here, but you can’t hear it around the corner. The setup is well run and on time.”
Shortly after this encounter, Illiterate Light would obliterate the Cumberland Stage and the minds of all in attendance.
At first, I got a bit of a My Morning Jacket vibe, (which I enjoyed) but soon heard some much heavier sounds exploding from the duo’s respective instruments. With a standing drummer bashing away at the drums with unmatched ferocity and the guitar player and primary singer getting wild with his Moog organ pedal along with his “regular” pedals, the two about burnt down the stage with their set. I would eventually hear some old White Stripes, Black Keys, and the like in their sound.
With bass reverberating through my chest and bones, I got up close to the guard rail by a patriotic older gentleman dancing and waving a flag bandana in front of a 9/11 sign in front.
“You’re lookin’ beautiful in the twilight tonight out there,” the drummer said as he grabbed the mic and stepped out from his drums and in front. “This is a song I wrote about my wife. It’s about how hot she is.” The drummer undoubtedly had the unbridled and untethered energy, as he often quickly paced around and would fly back to his drums and continue to bash. “Nice ass!” someone shouts from the crowd.
After a good dose of simply badass heavy rock with smooth grooving melodies, I had to take a seat towards the back to do some charging on my horrible iPhone. After maybe one song, I heard a most familiar riff. Oh yes. “Vampire Blues” was next on the docket for the band, and this being one of my favorite Neil Young tunes, I had to rush back to my position front and center. The guys simply would not let me rest and charge up.
And the blazing energetic music had yet to peak.
Over I wandered to 7th Street to catch Town Mountain, who on my arrival were in the thick of “West L.A. Fadeaway” by The Grateful Dead. I mean come on. Again, another favorite, and their effortless jamgrass groove had all the folks letting loose. The band would hammer out song after song in their signature style blending traditional country singer-songwriter songs with their range of delicate and barn burning bluegrass. This bunch out of Asheville was without question in my top three of the weekend, as I’d seen them tear it up at The Station Inn in Nashville a few years prior. Consider me a Town Mountain groupie. (though they might not be thrilled about that)
Entrancing gypsy songstress Sierra Ferrell closed out the night for us, this time at the dark end of the street adjacent to some dump trucks at the Lauderdale Stage just beyond the Country Mural Stage. No shade to the Blackberry Smoke bunch, but the standard southern rock paled in comparison to the intimate and dangerously charming music of Ferrell.
Out of nowhere, a man with an orange beard and an unstable strut approached us, and he’d clearly gulped a few drinks aside from the one firm in his grip.
“Hey y’all my name’s Timber,” he said shaking our hands. He immediately expressed his yearning love for Ferrell, and with a ring on his finger, “tells his wife this” he says in a matter of fact tone. He had a (likely healthy) fixation on Ferrell, and it enhanced my speculation of her hypnotic and seductive charm that leaves many starry-eyed. She leaves a trail of hearts in her wake, and Timber, though married, was surely one.
“I’m gonna cry, man” he said a few times in regards to her music.
“Well if you really want to cry, take a look over there.” I pointed to a frail old man with a blue hospital mask who danced and twirled with a much younger woman in a cowboy hat. The two gently danced the night away, and the man could very well have passed away the next day for all I knew, (and I sure hope he didn’t) as he was deep in his twilight years.
And that’s what Ferrell creates: a beautiful music environment that caters to generations and makes you fall in love or lust. Hell, that’s what a number of artists did this past weekend.
With all the moving parts and massive hurdles of the weekend, enough can’t be said about the curators and folks that made this event happen. Let it be known the efforts behind the scenes were not unnoticed, and from an outsider from Western New York’s perspective who’d never stepped foot in Bristol prior, it was easy to fall in love with the charm of the town and the spirit and atmosphere within. It was southern hospitality at its finest.
“If you embrace it, it will embrace you.” Netherland told me.
And what these curators and event planners did was create a blissful weekend-long escape from the dismal state of things we’ve all been enduring far too long. They provided spiritual and mental relief, and for that I thank them.
Homage was paid to the long gone souls that paved the way in 1927 and thereafter, and surely they could rest easy knowing that their beloved musical stylings are celebrated nearly 100 years later.
Bristol Rhythm Roots Reunion is not just any other festival. The tradition, heritage, and history behind it gives it a sense of magic, myth, legend, and lore. And with some of the best artists in the country, roots, and Americana realm paying their respects to those who inspired them, it makes for a particularly unique escape from our daily burdens.
Music always finds a way.