The spectacular late-summer block party that is the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion Festival wrapped up this past weekend, and per usual, did not disappoint.
Taking place within the historic city streets and various establishments throughout Bristol, TN/VA, the three-day festival celebrated its 21st Annual event.
With 17 stages and over 100 artists, the action was constant and plentiful. The quality and quantity of artists was most impressive, and the environment most hospitable. And as an added bonus for some, you even get some cardio in walking back and forth and up and down the streets. If only I had one of those fancy step countin’ devices.
There was a lot to see and unfortunately we had to miss plenty, but here are the Top 12 acts we saw at the 2022 Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion this weekend.
This was an act we caught last year at the festival that struck a chord with us. They are also a staple in the East Tennessee folk and roots scene as locals of nearby Johnson City, and are a crucial component to the festival. They harness a rich and authentic old-timey feel circulating in a realm of traditional country, folk, ragtime, bluegrass, and blues. They were the first act we caught on the Piedmont Stage when we got in on Friday, as they delivered a goosebumps-inducing version of “Save The Last Dance For Me.”
11. Jim Lauderdale
Speaking of crucial staples of the Bristol scene and beyond, few compare to Mister Lauderdale. The hardest working man in country music recently dropped his 35th(!) album Game Changer in August, to which he performed his single and my personal favorite “Friends Again,” along with the title track among others. He’s as good as they come when it comes to traditional country, contemporary singer-songwriter songs, and some harder-driving honky tonk rockers. He’s well aware of the hallowed ground of Bristol, and undoubtedly makes his music-making contemporaries of yore proud.
The only reason Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway are at this number in this fairly arbitrary list is because we simply didn’t see as much as we wanted to. There is no secret that Tuttle is one of the top acts in country/roots/bluegrass music today, and she proves it time and time again, along with her All-Star band which includes banjo pickin’ maestro Kyle Tuttle (believed to be no shared DNA). Anytime you see Molly Tuttle on a lineup you know you’re in good hands.
Again a situation where rank is based on amount of time spent indulging. I will say no artist seemed to have as much buzz as 49 Winchester. I remember hearing many a rumbling last year, and it seemed to magnify tenfold this time around. Additionally, I would wager they had the biggest, densest crowd watching them of the whole festival, as they played on the premier State Street Stage. I could hardly manage to get 100 yards away it seemed. Tanya Tucker and Rosanne Cash drew sprawling crowds, but my money is on 49 Winchester bringing in the most ears.
We caught Kyshona along with two accompanying “background” singers at her Paramount Theater showcase on Friday night, and the power of the vocals between the three could potentially raise the dead. The bellowing trio of vocals sounded like a chorus of twelve people. Maybe thirteen. The theater itself was a perfect and sophisticated space for the sound and feelings happening inside. The soul, the power, and the heart within her music was beyond something worth writing home about. Chock full of gospel, blues, R&B, and soul, Kyshona blew the theater away with her songs that drove home sentiments of humanity and equality. “We all bleed the same blood,” the trio repeated towards the very end, getting the crowd singing along and really soaking it in. They closed out with a rightful standing ovation.
7. Tanya Tucker
Arguably the biggest headliner of the festival, Tanya Tucker might’ve been the most entertaining performer of the whole event, but not only for reasons everyone thought to be endearing. Tucker somewhat recently released her own brand of tequila, Cosa Salvaje – which translates to “Wild Thing” in Spanish – and she very much endorsed it Friday night.
Repeated onstage swigs led to a lot of off-the-cuff talking to the dismay of some around. “I wish she’d just shut the hell up and sing,” a few older women around me expressed. Personally, I thought she was funny and entertaining with her sass and rasp, but recognized her getting a bit off track at times. But hey- after 50 years of crushing the game she earned the right to do as she pleases. She is still a consummate professional and performer, and executed the songs she played, which included a killer “I’m On Fire” and “Ring of Fire” medley.
6. Rosanne Cash
An equally big time performer and again arguably the top headliner, Miss Cash was more even-keeled and delivered a solid performance to close out the festival Sunday evening. She had great stories that segued into most songs, some of her family’s roots in Arkansas, specifically her grandma and Johnny’s mother raising seven children in poverty but never complaining. She had everyone’s ears perked with each story that preceded her songs. Cash’s performance coincided with her dad’s 1968 Folsom Prison Exhibit at the museum.
Prior to her taking the stage, a line of young high school kids donned in all black with cowboy hats to match stretched across the front of the stage and sung a few Johnny Cash classics. This followed by a similar-sized group of girls who sung in tandem. Despite some sound snafus, it was a neat pre-cursor to Cash’s performance.
The famous Hollywood actor and former member of the little known band Old Crow Medicine Show performed twice, once on Friday evening and the other Saturday afternoon respectively, and we made it a point to get a double shot of Willie action. One of the best in the traditional American music and roots game, he delivered both with a band and solo. His voice is mountain-moving and other-worldly to say the least, as his range and vibrato is some of the best in the game. This on top of his precise and expert banjo and guitar picking makes him one of the top acts we saw. Notable songs included “Stewball”, “Samson and Delilah,” and “Take This Hammer.”
I really wasn’t too familiar with Asleep At The Wheel, though I’d heard the name plenty. But after Saturday night, I was well aware. The group brought the Texas roadhouse feel to the Piedmont Stage, and with that the party. Lead singer and guitarist Ray Benson ripped through some big time classics, as I got to the stage at the beginning of their version of fellow Texas legend Guy Clark’s “Dublin Blues.” From their they rattled off Cash’s “Big River” into Santo and Johnny’s “Sleepwalk.” Throw on Commander Cody’s “Hot Rod Lincoln” and consider this boy smitten. They brought the house (street) down in a big way.
As long as Del McCoury walks this earth, it’s a better place- let alone him performing on it. The 83-year-old legend and his sons Ronnie and Robbie McCoury lead this top tier bluegrass and traditional country troupe and never disappoint. Having been on-site at DelFest this year, it was a no-brainer to make sure I caught as much of Del as I could. When he’s not delighting with his music, he’s leaving perpetual smiles on the faces in the crowd with his banter and wit between songs. He’s also perpetually smiling and laughing his signature laugh, and his grandfatherly presence is unmatched. Tough to top a legend like this.
Amidst the many country, folk, bluegrass, and roots acts, there was one gritty blues rock group that captured my attention and perhaps my soul. Fantastic Negrito, aka Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz, was a man possessed on Friday night, as he was merely a spiritual vessel sent to deliver captivating music. With dirty rock and roll guitar riffs and heavy bass and drums, the group offered a Zeppelin-like feel with their ferocity. Fantastic Negrito utterly destroyed the Cumberland Park Stage, and had the crowd feeling some kind of way. I would see him in the hotel mere moments after, to which I shook his hand and expressed my appreciation. He was incredibly kind and grateful.
No surprise here, folks. Can you really argue this? I think not. She is perpetually entrancing and hypnotizing in her performance, and her accompanying band accentuates her sound so well. She is an American treasure, and the sky’s indeed the limit for this magnificent Appalachian songstress. Playing a number of songs from her 2021 album Long Time Coming, she had the crowd wrapped around her finger.
At one point, she brought up a man with a whip who provided an additional spectacle, as he attempted to whip through cans and things in mid-air, which had the crowd hollering while Ferrell and crew threw down. Towards the end, she played my personal favorite: a spooky minor-version of the Charley Pride classic, “The Snakes Crawl At Night,” which I first heard her do last year at the festival. All hail the queen.
[Note* Artists like The Wood Brothers and The War & Treaty among others were excluded simply because we didn’t catch enough of their sets. There was just too much great stuff going on at once.]
Featured photo by Billie Wheeler