Live Review

Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion Celebrates Landmark Recordings' 90th Anniversary

Mark O'Connor on September 15, 2017

Photo by David Crigger/Bristol Herald Courier

In the historic paradise of brick and painted-wall facades of downtown Bristol, nestled into the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee and Virginia, music lovers returned to a reunion of souls seeking new adventures in sound, from the historic to the venturesome. Sixty thousand people filled 22 stage sites with shows by 240 chord carriers, headlined by Dwight Yoakam and Judah and the Lion.

This year’s Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion 2017, held in mid-September, also celebrated, in a tribute featuring well-known performers, the 90th anniversary of the historic Bristol Recordings that brought with them American music as we know it.

I was lucky to have gotten to speak with a number of artists at the festival. These musicians show that roots music continues to evolve and expand its artistic parameters.


I was surprised when Shires came walking out of the darkness and stood by me as I leaned against a fire truck watching the huge, brightly-lit Bristol sign. She told me she thought I, in my cowboy hat and jeans, was a fireman. We chatted, and when the shuttle picked me up, the driver said, “I need to start hanging around with you!”

I caught both of her shows, where she was superb on voice and fiddle/violin doing her powerful songs, while she also told hilarious stories. When she came back for encores, I asked her for “A Song for Leonard Cohen. “Hi, buddy,” she said after the show, “I’ll do that for you next time.”


They might as well call it The O’Connor Family Band. It consists of Mark, icon of acoustic, stringed music, his wife, Maggie O’Connor, on  fiddle/violin and singing with one of my favorite voices, Mark’s son Forrest, a Harvard graduate, on mandolin and vocals, and his wife, Kate O’Connor, on violin and vocals, as well as Joe Smart on guitar and Geoff Saunders on bass.  The band won a Grammy this year for Best Bluegrass Album.

During his illustrious career, Mark O’Connor played for presidents Clinton and Reagan in the East Room of the White House,; was a session artist in Nashville on albums of Dolly Parton, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Randy Travis, and other greats; was in the historic rock-fusion band the Dregs; has written symphonies, string quartets, and American classical compositions such as “Appalachian Waltz,” performed with Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer; and was in seminal bluegrass bands, including Strength in Numbers, with Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglass, and Meyer. He and the band also teach his O’Connor Method of playing acoustic instruments worldwide.

Now, with the new band, he told me he hopes “to create a new sound, not heard of before in music in general, having three fiddles, one doing rhythmic chopping, another longer lines, then a (bowing) solo, having a little string quartet, a mini-orchestra, with many colors, a tapestry of string sounds.”

I told him after their show I felt that he had “communicated” with each instrument he played that night, violin/fiddle, guitar, mandolin, and bass. O’Connor has a recorded history as long as it is diverse and has played with most of the greats in modern music. Yet he’s a man who quietly touched his heart on a sweet September night backstage when complimented.


While Mark O’Connor had a full, very appreciative house, the nearby audience for Dwight Yoakam filled State Street from end-to-end with thousands of fans, a show I and The Mark O’Connor Band, big fans of Dwight, both would not have missed if not for simultaneous scheduling.


Ray Wylie Hubbard was filling in for his friend, Rodney Crowell, who had “some kind of health issue.” Hubbard grabbed me in mock anger when I asked him, “So, Hayes Carll wrote “Drunken Poets Dream?” “No!, he said, “that’s mine! I wrote that!,” then adding, “Actually, Hayes came in and said, “I got a woman  she's wild as Rome/She likes to lay naked and be gazed upon/She crosses a bridge and then sets it on fire/Lands like a bird on a telephone wire.” And, then I said, “Wine bottles scattered like last night’s clothes/Cigarettes, papers, and dominoes/She laughs for a minute about the shape I'm in/Says,’You be the sinner honey, I'll be the sin,’ and so on.” 

“If you live long enough, doing this, I guess you become an icon,” Hubbard said when I asked about being an icon. “Music is what keeps me going,” he added, “a song is a door to come through that wasn’t there before.”

With an English teacher father, he grew up on the likes of Byron and Shelley. I said that I, as a player, enjoyed his new tune “Open G.” He said, “I sleep with the president of my record company, my wife, Judy, so if I want to write about playing in open G, I do.”

He described his music as “deep, dirty, gnarly lyrics on a deep groove.” He calls his new album, Tell the Devil I’m Getting There as Fast as I Can, his “rock anthem.” “I must be doing something right,” he added, “or I wouldn’t have folks like Eric Church and Lucinda Williams on there with me.”  About the title, he said, “I hope it’s metaphoric.”


I was sitting in the DAV (Disabled American Veterans) parking lot, planning my day, when I got a call. “Hello?” I said, “Hey, this is Langhorne.” “Oh, hi,” I said in surprise. “How are you?” I said. “Well, I just got in this morning from a tour in Italy, and now I’m driving to Bristol, am probably four or five hours away, so I’m not exactly psychedelic.” At his afternoon performance, he was uncharacteristically solo and acoustic. He sat stage-side surrounded by fans, as he told stories and sang and played as if he himself were electric, with a resonant sound surprising from one voice and guitar, a vintage Martin he carried around all day.

He also sang in the tribute concert and suggested we talk over dinner afterwards. As we ate at 620 State, we talked about everything from the Beat poets to our relationships, and, of course, Langhorne’s music. “It’s important that those of us who are creative do what we love, there is a need, a need sometimes otherwise filled with alcohol and drugs, you got to pursue your desire,” the troubadour said. I felt like I’d met a brother from another mother, and hoped we’d meet again, as he said he felt we would.


The young men of Judah and the Lion (“The Lion of the Tribe of Judah”) were quiet and thoughtful as we talked, in contrast to their wildly leaping performance later that night, with lead singer and songwriter Judah Akers pulling his T-shirt over his head at one point, to the delight of young women crowding the stage. Their “family” or “pride,” as they call their followers, sang every word loudly and danced with smiles and laughter. They began as a folk/bluegrass Christian band while attending the same Nashville college.

I myself love their sound, merging folk, hip-hop, electronics, and acoustics to make a unique, flowing music that can move me near ecstasy. Mainstream appreciation, though, does not preclude the guys focusing on their music as an art that must be continually improved on. “We are constantly growing and changing, while we are also growing in age,” Akers said. “We’re always creating and getting new songs. We like hip-hop, like 50 Cent, and try to mesh the rhythm and energy of that with folk and roots music.”


Charlie talked about his new record, Dog, saying “dog,” his metaphor for the depression he has suffered since childhood, was a happy word to players joining him on the record. They lightened the album’s content. He attempted suicide twice growing up, and the worse moments had returned in recent years. “I need my guitar. I wouldn’t be here, I don’t think,” he said, “if I didn’t have a guitar, the guitar helps me want to stay alive.”


This duo has gone from gigs with an audience of four to headlining Red Rocks. Emily Frantz said, “It doesn’t feel very quick to us, it has been a steady climb.” Her long-time partner and their songwriter, Andrew Marlin, told me, as they sat on a trailer bumper, that he was learning from a record of Louis Armstrong playing W. C. Handy: “These versions are really buoyant, very few mics, just getting a good take, it’s very inspiring.” They played with their usual mix of wistful sadness and hopeful joy.


I fell in love with Folk Soul Revival and their special mix of atmospheric, jumping tunes at last year’s R & R. They play to sold-out crowds, led by the “Congregation,” a group of their fans  “from 8 to 80." The band played an extraordinary show, featuring the resonant, deep vocals of the imposing (big beard, covered by well drawn tats, tall, & muscle-packed, wearing country hat) Daniel Davis, who also writes their songs, including the lovely ode “Sweet Virginia.” Their other “hit” is “Chinatown,” a tune (not written by Davis) that the Congregation and I could sing in our sleep. Annabelle’s Curse is another highly entertaining, adept band Bristol-area band, also with a mixed fan base. Two of the band members, Carly Booher Edwards and Zack Edwards, were recently married.  Carly was a featured soloist at the tribute show, wearing her signature hat and showing-off an extraordinary voice.


Christian played at the Tribute with the show’s host, Cruz Contreras, and his fine Black Lillies band. Young and movie-star handsome, he was traveling with a young lady-friend who is in fact a Hollywood actress. Lopez, 22 years old, has a fine voice, heard in his heart-stretchingly emphatic rendition of “In the Jailhouse Now.” Lopez shared this about his recent move to the Music City: “I saw him (Kenneth Pattengale of The Milk Carton Kids) in a music bar in Nashville, and I went up to him. I was talking like a crazed fan, and trying to keep it cool. It was one of those odes to the beauty of Nashville how you can run into somebody, and a week later, they’ll be playing on your record!”


Also in the tribute (among other notables) were Dobro master Jerry Douglass, famed duo Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, and War and Treaty, an African-American duo and a powerful presence, putting their soul-touching spin to the great Carter Family tune, “No Depression in Heaven.” The Carter Family is central to the history honored at the R & R. Dale Jett, the sole remaining performing member of The Carter Family, grandson of A.P. and Sara Carter, performed at the R & R and later helped with harmony in the tribute finale.


On my R & R adventures this year, I, as a late-comer disabled person, was greatly aided by the Disabled American Veteran volunteers who shuttled me everywhere and gracious members of the stage crews, police, and organizers.

The festival also included a duet by legislators Lamar Alexander (TN) on keyboards and Tim Kaine (VA) on harmonica/mouth harp, performed on the state line running through State Street. Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, a big Mark O’Connor fan, introduced the lawmakers, who named themselves The Amateurs.

The list of stars at R & R could fill Main Street, but other performers included newcomers Lilly Winwood, daughter of Steve Winwood, and Tyler Childers, his recent album produced by Sturgill Simpson, and indie superstars Son Volt/Jay Farrar, The Steeldrivers (Chris Stapleton’s former band), and The Infamous Stringdusters, among many others.

A friend had to leave the finale, as she found herself moved to tears. An American treasure, the urban-based music fest that is the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion once again outdid expectations in a myriad of musical feastings and festivities that showed the continuing evolution of roots music.