Bristol Rhythm And Roots Reunion

Bristol Rhythm And Roots Reunion
By Tom Netherland

Jerry Douglas grinned while standing in the midst of the mists of music history. He cradled his Dobro as if it were a swaddling babe. Within moments, its strings would cry in a twang as birthed by Josh Graves amid the groundbreaking swell of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys. Douglas knew that he was standing in the shadows of greatness.

“We’ll be trying not to freak out,” Douglas said moments before the Earls Of Leicester made its debut during last September’s Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion in downtown Bristol. “It’ll be like going to school. The teachers are watching.” An eyelash blink later, Douglas and The Earls huddled close and struck a mighty chord of Lester and Earl to the tunes of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” “Who’ll Sing For Me,” “Long Black Train,” and so forth. Why, Douglas even grinned a little during serious gospel tunes—couldn’t help it. He had company aplenty from a whoopin’-wailing crowd of fans eager to hear The Earls.

“People bought tickets to Rhythm & Roots just to see the Earls Of Leicester,” said Kim Davis, director of marketing for the Birthplace of Country Music, of which Rhythm & Roots is a part. “We were excited to have them here. The place was buzzing.”

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Kaleidoscopes of humanity converge upon the twin cities of Bristol, Virginia and Tennessee, the Birthplace of Country Music, each September for Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion. The next installment dates are September 21-23, 2018. From across the pond, they’ve visited from France and England, Japan and Ukraine. They heard a three-ring circus of sound, a big bang that spread from 1927 to the year forthcoming. A moveable feast of sound sprouted from heritage and rooted in Americana compels divergent paths to meet in the quaint downtown.

Nominated for IBMA’s Bluegrass Event Of the Year in 2012, Rhythm & Roots features a stout lineup of bluegrass talent each year. For instance, 2012 included Sam Bush as well as Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Balsam Range, The SteelDrivers, Steep Canyon Rangers, and Dale Ann Bradley, to name a few.

“I definitely wanted to be a part of this,” Douglas said. “It’s really cool in Bristol. It gives you a different feeling to be in Bristol. That’s where Ralph Peer recorded these people. He did it in a lucrative way. He was thinking so far ahead of his time. It was timing. It was serendipitous. There’s so much history just from that.”

When Ralph Peer of New York’s Victor Talking Machine Company came to Bristol during the summer of 1927, he probably didn’t envision what eventually would happen. Between July 25 and August 5, 1927, Peer recorded 76 songs on the second floor of the Taylor-Christian Hat Company on the Tennessee side of Bristol. Historical benchmarks included the first recordings made by Mississippi’s Jimmie Rodgers and Poor Valley, Virginia’s Carter Family. Rodgers’ biographer Nolan Porterfield later tagged The Bristol Sessions as the “Big Bang of Country Music.” Rodgers’ influence ventured onward to touch the beginnings of bluegrass with Bill Monroe, whose recording of the Singing Brakeman’s “Mule Skinner Blues” led in large part to Monroe’s joining the prestigious Grand Ole Opry in 1939.

“There’s so much to be proud about up there in Bristol,” said Tim O’Brien, who led Hot Rize to Rhythm & Roots in 2015. “Country music was born there. It’s a document. Ralph Peer did an amazing thing. It’s the Adam & Eve and Old Testament of country music.”

Into Bristol’s fertile Garden of Eden stepped Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. When they struck out on their own in 1948 after having recorded foundational bluegrass with Bill Monroe as members of the Blue Grass Boys, they landed in Bristol, Tenn. They found work on WCYB radio’s highly influential noontime program The Farm & Fun Time Show in Bristol, Va. “Bristol was one of the first landing places for Flatt & Scruggs,” said David Peterson, who led his group 1946 to coveted Rhythm & Roots appearances in 2016 and 2017. “There’s very much a precedent for bluegrass in that place.”

Consider Farm & Fun Time as well as Bristol in those days. Geographically located within the buckle of the bluegrass belt, rural music thrived throughout a region that includes Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee. By the time Flatt & Scruggs came to Bristol, Ralph and Carter Stanley made their debuts on Farm & Fun Time on December 26, 1946. “That was the biggest thing in this part of the country,” the late Ralph Stanley said of the radio show. “The only thing bigger was the Grand Ole Opry. We were on Farm & Fun Time from ’46 to ’58.”

During their time in Bristol, Flatt & Scruggs lived in a trailer park just a short walk from where The Bristol Sessions recordings happened. During the week, they canvassed the region with personal appearances in coal-rich towns nearby including Clintwood, Norton, and Marion in Virginia. “I can totally understand why Lester and Earl lived there and what they got from living there,” Douglas said.

For those who want a taste of Bristol’s past, the Birthplace of Country Music Museum tells the story. It provides a rich timeline of events as to the impact and import of Bristol’s importance in music history, which in turn provides context for the existence of Rhythm & Roots Reunion.

“Great museum. I love that museum. I took the tour,” Douglas said. “Everyone who goes to that festival needs to go to the museum. It’s a magical place. It’s like being in the Ryman Auditorium when Hank Williams played. Bristol falls in that category.”

In the summer of 2015 and a mere block or so from whence Hank Williams’ fateful last ride passed through the darkened shadows of downtown Bristol, stood David Peterson. In broad daylight, the offspring of many a musical giant paused to admire some detail. “I was standing on a street corner in Bristol, Tennessee, across the street from L.C. King, where they make Pointer Brand overalls, taking a picture,” Peterson said. “I had bought a jacket and some overalls.”

Rhythm & Roots official Larry Gorley, the festival’s longtime bluegrass go-to guy and music committee member, happened to drive by. He noticed Peterson standing on the sidewalk. “He stopped his car, came back and said hello,” Peterson said. “The gears started turning right there on getting David Peterson & 1946 on Rhythm & Roots. It was a God thing. I was on my way to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum to play on the radio. I was promoting my new CD Simplicity at the time.”

Peterson had not appeared on the festival beforehand. However, he had been making overtures of a possible move from his home in Nashville to Bristol. So, the impromptu invitation not only found a willing recipient, it capitalized on an acolyte. “I really love Bristol,” he said. “I have an affinity for Bristol because hillbilly music reigns supreme there. They want the real artists. You can see Jimmie Rodgers on the side of a building there.”

Peterson experienced a potpourri of sound when he first performed at the festival in 2016. On any given year, one can dip as if with a ladle and have a taste of music hewn from heaven to the honky-tonks, rock to bluegrass. Reverie prevails throughout the downtown twin cities each September during the final breaths of summer and the first whispers of fall. “We’re blessed,” said Leah Ross, executive director of the Birthplace of Country Music, the organization that includes Rhythm & Roots as well as downtown Bristol’s Birthplace of Country Music Museum. “Just look at our lineup.”

When Rhythm & Roots began in 2001, it did so upon nearly 75 years of musically historic ground. They started small. The lineup featured a mix of local and regional acts with a smattering of national talent that included Bristol’s bluegrass stalwart Breaking Tradition, old-time band The Corklickers, Lost & Found, and The Lewis Family.

“A lot of people buy tickets to Rhythm & Roots just to hear bluegrass,” Larry Gorley, longtime Rhythm & Roots music committee member, said. “We’ve never tried to be just a bluegrass festival, but there is a large portion of bluegrass music in the lineup of the festival every year.”

A sampling of past lineups includes The Nashville Bluegrass Band in 2002, the Del McCoury Band as well as Blue Highway and Larry Cordle in 2003. Rhonda Vincent first appeared in 2004. Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver along with Steep Canyon Rangers, Bela Fleck, and Vincent helped to make 2005 shine a brilliant light of bluegrass in Bristol. “They have a healthy representation of bluegrass there,” Peterson said. “If you don’t like something, you can go listen to something else.”

Additional standouts include The Seldom Scene (2006), The Grascals (2007), Ralph Stanley (2008), and The SteelDrivers with Mike Henderson and Chris Stapleton (2009). More recent years included marquee leaders The Masters Of Bluegrass in 2013 and the Earls Of Leicester last year. Memorable moments happen with frequency at the festival. “There was the time when Bela Fleck got up on stage with the Steep Canyon Rangers a couple of years ago,” Gorley recalled. “When The Seldom Scene was here the first time, there were people who went to every set, hung on every word. That’s dedication. Watching Doyle Lawson and seeing the musicians in the crowd watching Doyle do his set was another highlight. I watched Pokey LaFarge watch Doyle. David Mayfield did that, too. Lots of them did.”

Variety within bluegrass acts to appear at Rhythm & Roots encompasses the genre’s wide and widening scope. They range from the traditional to the obliterating edge. Ebbs and flows within the bluegrass realm include on-the-edge bands such as The Infamous Stringdusters and the aforementioned SteelDrivers. “It’s an American festival that features bluegrass prominently,” Tammy Rogers of The SteelDrivers said. “I love that. I love it that I can walk down the street and see Patty Loveless on one stage, the Milk Carton Kids on another stage, and then see the Earls Of Leicester on another stage. I think there’s a large part of the bluegrass audience who would love Rhythm & Roots as it is right now.”

Dwight Yoakam headlined last year’s festival. Years past featured rock bands from Alabama’s Drive-By Truckers to Rhode Island’s Deer Tick. Blue-eyed soul’s St. Paul & the Broken Bones showed up in 2014, the same year as Emmylou Harris, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience, folk musician Willie Watson, country’s Dale Watson, bluegrass experimentalists The Kruger Brothers, and straight bluegrass courtesy Marty Raybon & Full Circle.

“There’s a lot of opportunities to listen to a lot of roots music. Bobby Bare was there. Dwight Yoakam was there,” Peterson said. “One thing about Rhythm & Roots, when there’s bluegrass present, it’s going to be the upper echelon of bluegrass artists. They’re going to be having some good stuff like the Earls Of Leicester. Bela Fleck was there in 2016. You’ll hear bluegrass in different contexts, but there will also be traditional bluegrass.”

Rhythm & Roots delivers a crossroads musical experience. Along one fork travels tradition in the form of bluegrass and country. Jesse McReynolds represented that last year from the bluegrass standpoint while artists including Patty Loveless have done likewise from the country music genre. There’s rock and there’s blues, folk and that which classifies as Americana in addition to soul bands and gospel groups. The SteelDrivers straddle considerable territory at those crossroads, which makes them an ideal band for the festival.

“The title: Rhythm & Roots. We’re totally steeped in the roots of American music and the rhythm,” Rogers said. “It’s a very groove-oriented band. It’s a thing to behold. It’s such a different band. Same thing when the Nashville Bluegrass Band came along. They were able to create a different sound, a different groove. To me, that’s the way to do it. For me, I wouldn’t be happy to cover other people’s songs and style. I’d rather stay at the house. We had Mike Henderson in the beginning, who brought in the blues. We had the amazing voice of Chris Stapleton. It wasn’t so far out of the bluegrass picture.”

When visiting Rhythm & Roots, to get the most profound bluegrass picture, one need but visit the Mural Stage. It’s one of  nearly 20 stages featured each year, but it’s the only one with a direct sightline to Tim White’s painting. White’s creation depicts primary participants of the 1927 Bristol Sessions—Ralph Peer, Jimmie Rodgers, The Carter Family, Ernest “Pop” Stoneman and wife Hattie Stoneman. It spans a building wall in a courtyard along State Street. Each September, the stage erects opposite and catty-corner to the massive image. Performers in the past including Jere Cherryholmes marveled at the sight as they played in its incredible cast.

“I love that stage. It’s always packed,” Rogers said. “It’s amazing. I was always a Carter Family fan growing up. Worthy travelers. I like that they’re worthy travelers.” Rodgers casts two thumbs up and a smile frozen in time toward the mural. A.P., Sara, and Maybelle Carter huddle close with instruments in hand as if a batch of songs are forthcoming. Peer rests his chin on his hand with a look that says, “What do you have for me to hear?”

“I played on that stage last year,” recalled Peterson. “I could see Jimmie Rodgers on the side of the building, giving me two thumbs up. We did his ‘Brakeman’s Blues’ and ‘In The Jailhouse Now.’”

Rhythm & Roots isn’t simply a festival. It’s Bristol, the Birthplace of Country Music. Visit for caravans of music from a patchwork quilt of shades from the American music experience that honors the past, embraces the present, and charges forth into the future. Walk in the footsteps of the foundation of country and bluegrass music, those of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family.

“They don’t make this in China,” Tim White, who painted the mural and leads bluegrass bands Troublesome Hollow and The VW Boys, said. “It can only be gotten here. It’s a natural resource.”

Music’s axis spreads wide from the West, extends into Far East locales of China and Japan, swoops South onto the African continent and North into the coldest of climes. But come each September, the eye of the musical universe draws a bead on Bristol as the cradle rocks yet again.

“It’s the place on the planet to be,” said Douglas. “I’ve wanted to be there for years. I do feel the history of it bearing down on us in that incredible place.”

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