As the band A Thousand Horses played their final note on the State Street Stage, closing out Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion's 20th anniversary celebration, festival organizers at the Birthplace of Country Music (BCM) were already hinting to the media that next year's event would honor another big milestone, the 95th anniversary of the 1927 Bristol Sessions - the event known internationally as the "big bang of country music."
"When we first started Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, we had high hopes that we'd still be around in 20 years and here we are," said BCM Executive Director Leah Ross. "And though our festival honors our history every year, we plan for next year to be even more special."
Attendance numbers for the event have yet to come in for this year's event, but Ross was pleased with festival turnout.
"It was well-attended and so many fans came up to me and expressed how much they loved the music they saw. We want to thank our visitors, our artists, our volunteers and sponsors, and both cities of Bristol for helping make our 20th anniversary a success."
Held annually on State Street, the site of the 1927 Bristol Sessions and where Tennessee and Virginia meet, Bristol Rhythm salutes the roots and the far-reaching branches of those legendary recordings with an eclectic lineup of artists whose music not only touches on the twin cities' historic past, but also transcends the boundaries of tradition. Known for its cross-genre grouping of artists and for fostering the talents of under-the-radar acts, this year's festival was a cornucopia of Southern and roots rock, bluegrass, classic country, indie-rock, and even a little funk.
A sample of Bristol Rhythm's Friday schedule exemplifies the diverse nature of the festival, as the event's Country Music Mural stage opened with a rousing edition of WBCM Radio Bristol's Farm and Fun Time show, hosted by station producer Kris Truelsen and his house band Bill and the Belles, and featuring special guests Sierra Ferrell, Dori Freeman and Nora Brown. The monthly program, which broadcasts monthly from the Performance Theater inside the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, is a refresh of the classic WCYB radio program of the 1940s and 1950s that helped elevate the careers of bluegrass artists such as The Stanley Brothers and Jim & Jesse McReynolds.
Later that evening hit-maker John Anderson fed the appetites of country fans with an intimate set on the State Street Stage as funkmaster Cory Wong (known for his work with Vulfpeck, The Fearless Flyers, and others) took crowds at Cumberland Square Park on an experimental journey of tight funk grooves, soaring jazz horns, and Wong's intricate guitar licks.
The SteelDrivers delivered another solid Bristol Rhythm set to a sea of die-hard fans. Elsewhere Grammy nominee Madison Cunningham captivated audiences with her mind-blowing folk-jazz-rock fusion, while Hayes Carll delivered his Texas brand of country-folk with unparalleled wit and sardonic humor.
Bristol Rhythm remains loyal to its vast local music community by showcasing their talents each year. Standouts include Grammy nominee Amythyst Kiah and the band 49 Winchester - both acts are local treasures who are fast gaining momentum in the national spotlight. Each act was a must-see at this year's Reunion and both delivered multiple solid performances during festival weekend.
There was much to enjoy on Saturday at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, a full-day marathon of music on 13 stages, spread out along State Street and the surrounding Downtown area.
Festival headliner Blackberry Smoke enthralled fans from the very first note, then worked them into a ruckus later in the set as front man Charlie Starr took to the mic and declared, "This is a historical place in the United States of America," as he pointed to the place where the 1927 Bristol Sessions monument stands just a few feet from the stage. "I've got a surprise coming for you."
At that moment, the band ripped into their single "You Hear Georgia." Afterward Starr took to his acoustic guitar for a verse of of Jimmie Rodgers' "Blue Yodel (T for Texas)." It's moments like this that make festival goers and organizers alike swell with pride, knowing that artists who perform in Bristol not only know its history, but also hold the same reverence for this sacred place.
Dr. Dog, now on the band's farewell tour, performed before an enamored Cumberland Square Park crowd as local favorites Folk Soul Revival gave a bittersweet final performance on the Piedmont Stage to thousands of adoring fans that sang along to practically every song.
The Steel Woods, Darin & Brooke Aldridge, Rob & Trey Hensley, John R. Miller, Jim Lauderdale, American Aquarium, and The New Respects were other big festival highlights, each delivering stellar performances to enthusiastic crowds.
Festival mainstays include The Possum Creek Playboys, an act compiled of dozens of local pickers from a number of bands. The group gathered in a parking lot near Moore Street for a big bluegrass jam, something they do every year. Other exceptional locals at the festival include Ed Snodderly (owner of music mecca The Down Home), Beth Snapp, and Momma Molasses - each exemplifies the exceedingly high level of artistry that saturates the Bristol music scene.
Virtuosic cellist Dave Eggar, who recently moved to Bristol from Brooklyn, New York several months ago and is a frequent collaborator with musicians in the Bristol community, dazzled audiences from the Paramount stage with a multifarious ensemble of artists including former American Idol contestant Crystal Bowersox, tap dancer Parker Hall, Latin jazz bassist Ariel Dela Portilla, and Cuban-American vocalist Nicolle Guerra, among others.
Sunday's lineup included bluegrass royalty Rhonda Vincent, throwback country songster Charley Crockett, and roots-rocker Early James. Other notable performances by Woody Woodworth & The Piners, Seth Walker Band, Carly Burruss, Sally & George, and R&B artist Son Little kept audiences busy dancing from stage to stage.
Audience participation was in full force at Cumberland Square Park for Scythian, per usual - the band is a regular on the festival lineup and a fan favorite. Another is Virginia Ground - a genre-bending, preeminent local act whose sound exemplifies the evolution of Appalachian music into what could best be described as "that Bristol sound."
Bristol Rhythm ended on a high note with Nashville country-rock sensation A Thousand Horses closing out the festival in high-energy style on the State Street Stage, which is deliberately positioned to highlight the 100+ year old Bristol sign that carries the slogan "Bristol - A Good Place to Live."
The 3rd annual Bristol Sessions Super Raffle drawing was also held on Sunday during Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion with WBCM Radio Bristol host Kris Truelsen presiding. The event is a fundraiser for the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, and over $250,000 in cash and big prizes are given away. All 5,000 raffle tickets sold out prior to the festival, and a few lucky winners walked away with prizes ranging from $1,000 to $25,000, $5,000 towards a dream vacation to anywhere in the world, and a 2021 GMC Canyon truck. For a list of prizes and prize winners, visit BristolSessionsSuperRaffle.org.
The 21st annual Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion is scheduled for September 9-11, 2022. For more information visit BristolRhythm.com.