Twilight dawned as a freight train eased across State Street in Bristol, Tenn., on a warm September night in the Birthplace of Country Music. The hundred-year-old sign that beckons “Bristol: A Good Place to Live,” cast a glow that extended from the passing boxcars to the eyes of Jim Lauderdale, who stood on the Virginia/Tennessee border-straddling State Street with nary a blink.
Lauderdale seemed spellbound as Sam Bush closed out the 12th Annual Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion in downtown Bristol. He watched, he grinned, and moments later he stepped on stage and played an impromptu bluegrass jam with Bush on “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms.”
“This is what it’s all about at Rhythm & Roots,” Lauderdale said shortly afterward.
Rhythm & Roots was established a dozen years ago. Tickets are on sale now for the 13th Annual Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, which is scheduled for September 20-22, 2013. Organizers’ goal then as now was to honor Bristol’s resonant music past that extends to the 1927 Bristol Sessions that featured Ernest V. “Pop” Stoneman and the first recordings of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. Organizers also intended to feature a wide range of music that includes and branches out from the roots of the region. But Bristol is deeply embedded in the buckle of the bluegrass belt, which explains the wealth of Bill Monroe’s creations each year.
“You will get your bluegrass fix and more,” said Dale Ann Bradley, who performed with Steve Gulley at last year’s event.
Bluegrassers booked to appear during past installments of Rhythm & Roots from the traditional wing include Ricky Skaggs, Ralph Stanley, Rhonda Vincent, the Del McCoury Band, and Dailey & Vincent. Bluegrassers from the progressive side who’ve appeared include Peter Rowan, Sam Bush, and John Cowan. Then there’s the Grascals, Cherryholmes, Seldom Scene, Cadillac Sky, the Lonesome River Band, Blue Highway, and so forth.
Last year’s lineup of bluegrass artists included Sam Bush, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, the Steep Canyon Rangers, Dale Ann Bradley and Steve Gulley, the SteelDrivers, the Boxcars, the VW Boys, the East Tennessee State University Bluegrass Band, and Red Molly. Wrap it all up in a carnival-meets-state-fair feel with a measure of Mayberry added.
“It’s my absolute favorite of all-time,” said David Mayfield of the David Mayfield Parade, who added that his next album is a return to his bluegrass roots that includes a track recorded with his musical hero, Doyle Lawson. “I played Rhythm & Roots two years ago with Cadillac Sky and then the next year with the Parade. I love Bristol. I love State Street and all the shops. I love the people. It doesn’t feel like a festival. When you leave Rhythm & Roots, it feels like it’s still going on.”
Bluegrass old-time string band music from such acts as the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band, the Roan Mountain Moonshiners, and the Corklickers occupy space each year at Rhythm & Roots. Past country performers include Gene Watson, Billy Joe Shaver, Dale Watson, and Pam Tillis. Farther out on the branches are the rock artists of festivals past including the Drive-By Truckers, Dawes, and Unknown Hinson alongside blues from performers including Robert Randolph and O Brother, Where Art Thou? alumni Chris Thomas King.
“It’s a plethora of all kinds of music, but it’s all genuine music,” Bradley said. “It’s one of the best showcases of roots music in the nation. I mean in the nation. As a fan, I would go. I would be there every single time. It sits right in the middle of Appalachia. That town is cool. I have never seen a community get so involved as they do in Bristol with Rhythm & Roots. The Birthplace of Country Music—that’s their heritage.”
So for three days and nights each September, a handful of blocks along State Street closes. Stages erect throughout. The festival’s State Street stage, its main stage, spans both sides of the road and caps one end of the festival. It’s where Sam Bush played the final notes of last year’s festival. It’s where Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives enthralled fans well into the night two years ago with a bluegrass and country mix that folks still talk about. It’s where John Oates (from pop’s Hall & Oates) sang Jimmie Rodgers and Carter Family songs while angelic-voiced Dale Ann Bradley harmonized.
Attendees will see the dazzling marquee of the Paramount Center For The Arts well into the night. They can walk past the buildings of downtown, venture inside many of them for music or shopping and sometimes both, sit in a sidewalk café and have a bite while the music plays on, up and down and all around the twin city.
“City-centered festivals are not as plentiful as they used to be,” Bush said. “For me, it’s the best kind of festival.”
Nearly two dozen stages crop up along State Street throughout downtown Bristol. Much of Rhythm & Roots’ bluegrass fare now reverberates from the Country Music Mural Stage, which overlooks the building-spanning mural that Tim White painted a quarter-century ago to honor the principals of the 1927 Bristol Sessions. Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver entertained from that stage last year. So did Dale Ann Bradley and Steve Gulley, the Steep Canyon Rangers, and onward. “Man, that festival has always been great for us,” said Mike Guggino of the Steep Canyon Rangers. “It’s nice when it’s downtown like that.”
Experience Rhythm & Roots. Look around and among the crowd each year, patrons will see musicians milling about, shopping in the shops, eating the food, listening to the music, buying music. For example, as Doyle Lawson played on the Mural Stage last year, David Mayfield stood in the sea of a crowd and watched as his hero laid it on ’em.
“He’s a force,” Mayfield said of Lawson. “With those harmonies and gospel quartets, he’s such a trendsetter. I think it’s about time they put him in the Hall Of Fame. Doyle and Quicksilver, it’s like a bluegrass boot camp.”
Music can also be heard indoors at the Paramount Center For The Arts on the Tennessee side of State Street and in the Cameo Theatre on the Virginia side. Step into O’Mainnin’s Pub for a brew and bluegrass or grab a bagel and a song at the Manna Bagel Company. Tunes, like fallen leaves in autumn, float throughout and simultaneously up and down State Street, inside and outside during Rhythm & Roots.
“When I go to Bristol, I plan on going early and staying late,” Mayfield said. “It’s not the type of gig where you roll in a half-hour early, play the gig, get paid, and leave. You need to walk along State Street. You have to go into the bagel shop, visit the record store, check out what’s going on in the Paramount. It’s an experience.”
From day to dark, the music doesn’t stop. Bluegrass fans will hear bluegrass. And odds are they will hear much more, too. “You will get your bluegrass fix and more,” Dale Ann Bradley said. “If you are a true bluegrass fan, then you can’t help but like the other artists, too. You might hear something across the street and say, ‘Man, that’s cool.’”
That works in multitudes of ways. While a bluegrass fan can venture beyond bluegrass and hear rock or country or blues or gospel, fans of those styles will absolutely have an opportunity for extensive exposure to bluegrass. “We have the chance of introducing a broad demographic to bluegrass who have not been exposed to bluegrass,” said Leah Ross, executive director of Rhythm & Roots. “You really can come to our festival and if all you like is bluegrass, you can go to the Country Music Mural Stage and hear bluegrass all day. It’s just plain bluegrass. There are a lot of people who come to our festival who say they don’t like bluegrass, but they go away loving it.”
Yet in keeping with tradition, bluegrass rules at Rhythm & Roots. Call it one in a long and growing line of unexpected moments in the dozen years of one of the fastest growing music festivals in America. Folks from all over the world including Japan, England, France, Italy, and even the Ukraine have attended Rhythm & Roots.
“Last year, we had tour groups from the United Kingdom and a tour group from Sweden,” Ross said. “We had people from 42 States last year. We have a passion for this town and music. It’s very rewarding to realize what we have here.”
That didn’t happen overnight. Attend Rhythm & Roots now and experience a thriving hive of activity as people from all walks take to their heels and walk along the sidewalks and street throughout the enclave of the festival as they meander from stage to stage and band to band. Theaters fill, crowds hug up to and extend far out from stages outdoors, restaurants pack with people and pubs do, too. It’s quite a scene now.
“We had about 7,500 for our first year,” Ross said. “This past year, we had around 50,000. The last five years is when we’ve seen the significant increases.”
That’s partly because organizers cater to fans and musicians alike. Conducive and laid-back for each side of the music-going experience, there’s essentially a wide swathing welcome mat offered to all who come.
“Rhythm & Roots is great for both fans and musicians,” Bush said. “I love that kind of show when it’s a city festival. You will have people who have never heard you before, and they might go away excited.” Bush spoke while tuning his 1938 Gibson mandolin. “This one’s named Hoss,” Bush said of the well-worn mandolin. “I’ve owned it since 1973. Bill Monroe looked at it and said, ‘That’s a good lookin’ mandolin.’”
With Hoss in hand, Bush opened his ninety-minute show with a freight-hauling take on the bluegrass classic, “Bringin’ In The Georgia Mail.” He traveled on with a fiddle through instrumental “Puppies ‘N’ Knapsacks,” resumed his relationship with Hoss on a riveting bluegrass take of the Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen A Face” and a rails rumbling cover of the Delmore Brothers’ “Freight Train Boogie.”
“Sam Bush,” Lauderdale said as his face spread into a grin. “That’s Rhythm & Roots right there.” Bush noticed Lauderdale moments later and nodded. Lauderdale nodded back. Bush mauled forth with a sizzling electric mandolin through “Picasso’s Mandolin” and “I Put A Spell On You.” He finished up with “Laps In Seven.” But he wasn’t finished. He walked off stage, encountered Lauderdale and on the spot they came up with a tune to play as the show’s finale. They looked back to Flatt & Scruggs for “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms.”
Those one-of-a-kind moments have become a part of Rhythm & Roots’ calling card. Organizers encourage musicians to seek one another out and to occasionally hop on stage for collaborations that haven’t happened anywhere else. That mantra carries into the music, too. Rhythm & Roots embraces musicians who come and journey back into their own roots to sometimes explore music from whence their sounds emerged.
“I’ve played there solo, with bluegrass, and with Donna the Buffalo,” Lauderdale said. “It’s really nice that I can play there with all these different kinds of music. I’ve got several different kinds of roots, but the first was bluegrass and specifically the Stanley Brothers and Ralph Stanley. Bluegrass is what I first started playing earnestly.”
Roots live in Bristol. Heritage is embraced. Tradition, that’s all but written along the sidewalks in the city that birthed Tennessee Ernie Ford and provided some of the earliest broadcast exposure of the Stanley Brothers via live radio on WCYB’s fabled Farm And Fun Time Show.”
“Oh man, roots, that’s your soul,” Larry Cordle said. “You go back and that’s your very soul. Brother, I’ll tell you, Bristol is still a player on the music scene to me. Things are going on over there.”
Those roots oftentimes grow where folks least expect. Take Tommy Ramone. He’s the only living member from the original lineup of punk rock pioneers the Ramones. He played drums. And he listened to bluegrass before, during, and after the Ramones rocked the world.
“When I left the Ramones in 1978, I’d put on Flatt & Scruggs or Doc Watson,” Ramone said mere steps from where Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family first recorded and helped sow the seeds that led to bluegrass. “I grew up with it. I’ve heard bluegrass since I was a child.”
Rhythm & Roots gave Ramone a chance to present his style of way-out-on-the-branch interpretation of bluegrass via his duo Uncle Monk in 2009. Few in the crowd knew of his background and it didn’t really matter. He played his mandolin as a smile laced his face that traced from Bristol and, in the moment, back to his childhood in New York City listening to his brother’s records of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs as he dreamed of playing “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”
“It’s special to us,” Ramone said of the opportunity. “When we were invited to do it we were like, ‘Wow!’”
Bristol birthed as a music city in the days of Jimmie, A.P., Sara, and Maybelle thanks to Pop Stoneman for helping to organize the talent and Victor Records’ Ralph Peer for coming and recording the lot. It continued when during the 1940s The Farm And Fun Time Show originated from the studios of WCYB and ranged out on the radio and into the homes of such future bluegrass legends as Bobby Osborne. Early sounds of the Stanley Brothers occupied the ebb and flowing airwaves of the mostly bluegrass show along with Bill Monroe, Carl Story, and Flatt & Scruggs. Bristol’s music heritage never died as the decades mounted. Country music superstar Kenny Chesney, a member of the bluegrass program at East Tennessee State University in nearby Johnson City, Tenn., recorded his first album about twenty feet from where Larry Cordle sang “Highway 40 Blues” last year on the Virginia side of Bristol.
However, Bristol’s rich music past wasn’t readily embraced by local politicians during the 1970s and ’80s. Many locals grew up in the era with little to no knowledge of their heritage. It was akin to Idaho not embracing the potato. That tide began to turn when Tim White painted the immense mural, completed in 1986, that honors the 1927 Bristol Sessions. White, Fred McClellan, and Leton Harding founded the Birthplace of Country Music Alliance in 1994. Four years later, Congress by way of resolution officially bestowed the title of Birthplace of Country Music upon the twin city. Rhythm & Roots chimed in a decade later with its first of 12 years in October 2001. Heritage embraced. To paraphrase from the movie Field Of Dreams, they built it and folks come.
“Bristol is such a cultural landmark in terms of music,” said Dom Flemons of string band sensation the Carolina Chocolate Drops. “It’s one of those places where you pay tribute. When you go to Memphis, you go to Beale Street. When you go to Nashville, you go down Music Row. It holds its legacy.”
“You can experience a bluegrass festival right in the middle of an Americana music festival at Rhythm & Roots,” said Larry Gorley, co-chairman of Rhythm & Roots music committee. “I always say to people that if you are here and you don’t like something, then just move down a ways and you’ll find something that you do like.”
There’s a controlled chaos to Rhythm & Roots in that activity abounds. One block may be rocking to Ricky Skaggs while a block away Chris Thomas King summons a Jimmie Rodgers tune, blues style. In between, neighbors from down the road mingle with folks from all over the world in a small city that swells enormously come each September.
“My wish list would include Bobby Osborne, J.D. Crowe, Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out,” Gorley said. “My list would include Balsam Range, Della Mae, Kenny & Amanda Smith, Red Molly, and Marty Raybon.”
“You know,” said Leah Ross, “we would love to have Vince Gill here one year.”
Funding needed to book either Gill or his sideband the Time Jumpers has just not been available thus far. But who knows? Some year, maybe this year or perhaps some other year. Whenever that happens organizers would welcome Gill to roll with rock, wail the blues, praise with gospel, swing alongside the Time Jumpers or, of course, spark a fire on the strings of his mandolin and bore into bluegrass. Those roots are welcome in Bristol like family gathered around a Christmas tree. Time established the tradition that Bristol embodies, which Rhythm & Roots lovingly embraces. It’s in the genes. It’s in the blood. It’s in the heart and soul alike. Music and the roots of bluegrass and country music belong in Bristol. It’s family. And there’s a wondrous, happy reunion for all to come and celebrate together.
“Rhythm & Roots is kind of like a street fair where instead of a tilt-a-wheel, it’s Patty Loveless,” Mayfield said. “If you miss Rhythm & Roots, you’ll miss seeing something that you’ll probably never see again. I’ve been to Telluride and Bonnaroo. I would trade ’em both for Bristol in a heartbeat.”