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Bristol Hosts its Epic Roots Music Festival with Loretta Lynn 1/2 in VA and 1/2 in TN

Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion audience rocks out to a favorite band. Photo by Bill Foster

There has been a proliferation of music festivals, largely with an emphasis on rootsy music over the past decade or so, especially here in Virginia, from my wife’s and my favorite, the somewhat recent addition to the scene, the Red Wing Roots Music Festival to the venerable Floydfest and the two Festies in different parts of the state, as well as the long-time bluegrass festival in Galax, just to name a few, large and small.

Nationally, the famed Bonnaroo festival is in Tennessee, and there are big festivals in San Francisco and Maryland, and large and small ones in numerous other states (perhaps all of them), including No Depression’s entry into the field, the annual FreshGrass festival, in collaboration with the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and the Fresh Grass Foundation in North Adams, Massachusetts. There are also large-scale performance events, similar to the festivals, in conjunction with programs such as the soon-coming Americana Music Awards in Nashville and the Folk Alliance International Annual Conference in Kansas City.

That having been said, there is another venerable, indeed iconic, old timer in the roots fest field that can still take your breath away in its sheer magnitude and scope . The Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion 2016, taking place from Sept. 16-18, this year features over 140 performers on 20 stages, impressive indoor, historic stages and outdoor ones, with an anticipated audience of more than 50 thousand, more than doubling the population of the host city, coming from throughout the U.S. and from several foreign countries. As it is, I got one of the last flights available to the Bristol area from my Virginia home in Norfolk several weeks ago.

Headlining the Reunion will be country music royalty in the person of Loretta Lynn and, from the blues aristocracy, the legendary Buddy Guy, along with the likes of The Indigo Girls, the creative country music master Marty Stuart, Cracker, Houndmouth, Bella Fleck and Abigail Washburn, Carter family descendent Dale Jett (A.P. and Sara’s grandson), Mipso, Darryl Scott, Stone Canyon Rangers (albeit without Steve Martin), Anderson East, Hayes Carll, 12-year old phenom Fiddlin’ Carson Peters (a star on Steve Harvey’s Little Big Shots) with his own band, former Ralph Stanley lead singer Larry Sparks, eclectic Native American band Ulali, Portland’s soulful R & B singer Liz Vice, and on and on.

This prodigious event takes place throughout the center of state-shared historic, downtown Bristol, Virginia and Tennessee, with the state line running directly through the center of town. If you’re not going to No Depression’s Fresh Grass, of course, you’ll want to be sure not to miss this one-of-a-kind musical opportunity.

I can’t wait to get there and will as soon as I catch Alabama Shakes here in Portsmouth. (Can ‘t miss that!)

"Downtown Bristol is split in half by the state line of Virginia and Tennessee, so fans can dance in two states during Bristol Rhythm," said Birthplace of Country Music Marketing Specialist Charlene Baker. "The festival takes place in a gorgeous downtown setting, no muddy fields! Lots of places to duck out of the elements," she added.

Birthplace of Country Music (BCM), sponsor of the Rhythm and Roots Reunion (R & R) is a non-profit organization with a small staff and the crucial assistance of hundreds of volunteers. A committee of volunteers even handles the awesome task of assembling and overseeing the performing artists roster each year.

The Reunion part of the event’s title comes from the fact that it is a commemoration of the arrival in Bristol in 1927of RCA Victor’s Ralph Peer to record the area’s musicians. This resulted in the country’s and ultimately the world’s awareness of the music of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, arguably the birth of country music in America.

Indeed, the Carters hailed from the nearby Maces Spring and Hiltons area that includes the aptly named Rich Valley and Poor Valley (indeed where the poorer citizens such as A.P. Carter lived), and Clinch Mountain. Before returning home to Norfolk on that Monday following the R & R, I plan to drive a small circle through Carter country and explore those areas I’m able to visit, including the famed Carter Fold and the Carter ancestral cabin, possibly meeting some of the Carter clan in the process, a trip I plan to document in an upcoming No Depression article, along with coverage of the Reunion itself.

This important history, and the reverence many country and other artists have for the Carter family is likely one reason the Reunion is able to draw such a massive and impressive roster of artists each year.

I have already had some communication with Carter family members. In answer to my question to her about the significance of the festival relative to the legacy and awareness of the Carter Family and its importance in the history of American Music, Dale Jett’s wife Teresa replied:

"We think Rhythm and Roots and the city of Bristol have had an important impact on honoring the legacy of the Carter Family and the traditional roots of the music and have reached thousands of people through their joint efforts.

The festival consistently includes Carter Family members in its musical line ups as well as other descendants of the Peer recordings. You can't walk down the street without seeing Carter Family memorabilia in the store fronts or hearing Carter Family songs- the presence of the Carter Family and the other musical descendants of the Peer auditions can be felt.

The museum's exceptional presentations also have an impact on thousands by showcasing the historical significance of the birth of country music. The festival reaches all ages. The historical thread of music continues weaving into the present cloth of sound we hear today - nothing thrills us more than to walk through the crowds at the festival and hear a new rendition of an old song- it's a comfortable feeling, knowing that the "Big Bang" of country music is continuing to boom in Bristol!"

The Birthplace of Country Music has an important offshoot, The Museum of the Birthplace of Country Music, mentioned by Mrs. Jett, which is located in the heart of what will be performance central in downtown Bristol. They also operate the wide-reaching roots radio station Radio Bristol out of their downtown headquarters.

Charlene Baker described the organization’s objectives with the so-called R & R (Rhythm and Roots) – as well as its history - as follows:

"Bristol Rhythm and Roots is a "reunion" in every sense of the word. Not only are we celebrating the spirit of legendary 1927 Bristol Sessions that were recorded here, families and friends - even class reunions - make the festival a destination each year in order to reconnect with each other. Historic Downtown Bristol has a warm, welcoming, and hospitable atmosphere, it feels like home. 

2016 is the 16th anniversary of Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion. What started as a small, community event now attracts visitors from all over the world with around 50,000 people in attendance over the course of the 3-day weekend. The festival creates an estimated $16 million in economic impact for our region. 

We've hosted a wide range of performers from different genres including Dr. Ralph Stanley, Doc Watson, Patty Loveless, The Drive-By Truckers, Steve Earle, Robert Earl Keen, Emmylou Harris, John Oates, Leftover Salmon, and Jeff Tweedy. We are known for booking under-the-radar talent; over the years we've showcased acts like The Avett Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show, St. Paul & the Broken Bones, and The Carolina Chocolate Drops well before they achieved notoriety."

She continued with some additional historical milestones:

"Johnny Cash once said "These recordings in Bristol in 1927 are the single most important event in the history of country music." Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion initiated a renaissance of our region's rich music culture and helped spark revitalization in our downtown.

Once the festival merged with another non-profit in 2012 to create the Birthplace of Country Music organization (BCM), the popularity of the festival helped BCM expand. In 2014 BCM opened the doors to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, and one year later we launched WBCM Radio Bristol, which broadcasts live in the Bristol area and streams online and through our mobile app.

We are able to reach audiences internationally 24/7, and take the message of our mission to preserve our region's music heritage across the globe. It's amazing how music makes connections." 

Executive Director of the Birthplace of Country Music, Leah Ross, expanded on the topic of the Carter Family’s and legendary singer-songwriter Jimmie Rodgers’ significance (Rodgers also recorded with Peer in 1927 Bristol and is responsible for a significant part of our cherished American songbook. ):

Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company came to Bristol to record hillbilly music. What he discovered was a wealth of talent beyond anyone's imagination. The 1927 Bristol Sessions included the first recordings of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers and they were the first commercially successful country music recordings of that time. They sparked a revolution in the industry and are the most influential country music recordings in history.

Those sessions were also important because of the state-of-the-art technology used to record them. BCM not only passes on that history to future generations, it shows the trajectory of that influence on the music of today through our museum, our festival, and our radio station.

I would add the 1927 recordings included some by African Americans from  that part of Appalachia. Though it appears that Peer had some of the racist baggage of the times, that didn’t stop him from recognizing and promoting some of the  remarkable music he heard from this segment of the Appalachian countryside.

Downtown Bristol includes numerous historic landmarks like the huge and brightly lit, iconographic Bristol sign, the large and impressive downtown country music mural, the "Take the Stage" statue in Cumberland Square Park, the famed Burger Bar, the library, the historic LC King factory, and others. 

In addition to the music, there will be events including guitar jams, artisan vendors, a wide variety of food venders, yoga, children’s activities, an emphasis on green awareness in recycling and other efforts, and a large artists’ merchandise (merch) area. There are numerous hotels as well as camping sites in the area, though much of this is already booked.

This will be the Reunion’s 16th year and still going strong. Things get underway on Friday afternoon, Sept. 16, and continue throughout the day and night (12 pm to 12 am) on Sat., the 17th, and until the early evening of Sun., the 18th. In the widening ranks of music festivals, Bristol’s R & R is not showing its age and remains one of the pre-eminent gatherings of contemporary musicians and the fans that love them.