Walking down the streets of downtown Bristol, there is an air about it. In late July 1927, Ralph Peer recruited local talent to the Tennessee-Virginia border town in the Appalachian foothills to record their music with a state-of-the-art device revealed as the original version of the microphone, replacing the horn. Peer transformed a Main Street hat shop into a makeshift studio where he captured The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers’ voices for the first time. Johnny Cash later named “The Bristol Sessions” the “single most important event in the history of country music.”
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To commemorate the pivotal moment in music history, The Birthplace of Country Music (BCM) has announced its full roster of talent slated to appear at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion’s 20th-Anniversary event that will be held September 10-12. After a pandemic postponement, headliners include Philadelphia indie-rock stalwart Dr. Dog, who will join Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit, Tanya Tucker, Blackberry Smoke, Yola, The SteelDrivers, Rhonda Vincent, and Hayes Carll. The Steel Woods, Son Little, the Lonesome River Band, Ian Noe, and Charley Crockett are a few more of the over 100 acts revealed on March 31.
Executive Director, Leah Ross, feels relieved to host this homecoming event after a long year off. Along with disappointed artists and fans, the canceled festival was an economic hurt to the town of Bristol. A 2015 Economic Impact Study showed that visitors to the festival from outside the region had a $16.1 million impact on the town and surrounding area. This data excludes the four years of the festival and the expected year-round influx from the new museum and hotel.
“20 years seems like a long time, but it’s not when you look at the amount of progress we’ve made during that time,” says Marketing and Communications Director Charlene Baker. “This is the product of owning your heritage, then using that as an engine for economic development.”
Both Ross and Baker have been with the festival since its inception, beginning as volunteers. Ross “almost cried” when she saw Amythyst Kiah light-up Times Square earlier this month. The Grammy-nominated Johnson City-based folk singer, along with Old Crow Medicine Show and St. Paul & the Broken Bones, exemplify the breadth of talent that emerged on Bristol’s smaller stages. According to Ross, that’s all thanks to their talent team’s pulse-keeping that also brought Rhiannon Giddens to Bristol over a decade ago to perform with The Carolina Chocolate Drops.
More critical than recruitment is sustaining talent for an upward trajectory. But year-after-year acts returns to Bristol like a homecoming parade.
“Other places, you see an artist go on stage and leave. Here you’ll see them walking the downtown sidewalks, supporting other artists.” The convivial atmosphere extends beyond the artists to the attendees. Ross says, “People come back every year and meet up with others at a certain spot—that’s always rewarding to see. We’ve even had people get engaged and married here.”
Ross attributes this to the lineage of Bristol’s hallowed ground. “We pride ourselves on finding up-and-coming artists, but also on the artists who preceded them like Billy Joe Shaver, Ralph Stanley, Doc Watson, and the artists respect those who came before.” She adds, “What has impressed me is you don’t expect everyone coming to play knows the history of this place, but so many do. They study the significance of this place and come play to be a part of it.”
Jim Lauderdale, a decades-spanning Bluegrass vet who has collaborated with Ralph Stanley, Buddy Miller, and Donna the Buffalo, also points to Bristol’s venerated history that keeps him coming back. Seeking the suitable descriptors, he says, “There’s a vibe about it that can’t quite describe, but it inspires me to want to write and sing there. And then I go sing those songs elsewhere.”
The reunion aspect of the festival holds a special place in Lauderdale’s heart. He says, “In some ways, it’s like a pilgrimage. There’s such an enthusiasm from the festival-goers, presenters, and artists alike that we all want to keep returning to.”
With over 30 studio albums under his belt, Lauderdale says he still feels like a developing act. There is a feeling of walking around downtown Bristol, seeing both luminaries and emerging artists continuing the lineage of roots music that is “just good.” His highlight memories include seeing John Oates—who he says “really loved it there”—perform the State Street stage and Mary Stewart meandering the streets.
“It’s always great to see our friends, but especially now that we’ve been so isolated,” says Lauderdale. “As an artist, you look forward to seeing fans, audience members, and other artists in Bristol every fall; it’s a reunion. But even more so this year, it will be an emotional homecoming.”
Returning this year alongside Lauderdale is Rhonda Vincent, award-winning bluegrass singer, multi-instrumentalist, and “repeat offender” at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion. She points to a collaboration with Grand Ole Opry star Gene Watson as her fondest memory of the annual event so far, but she doesn’t plan on retiring anytime soon.
“Bristol Rhythm & Roots features a variety of music styles,” says the artist. “From the bluegrass music that we play to traditional country music, along with authentic performances that stretch the boundaries of these basic styles, there’s something for everyone. The music featured is a real true life experience. When you attend and listen, you can feel the tradition, heritage, and love that comes through each performance. It’s an event you don’t wanna miss.”
Weekend passes to the 20th annual Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion music festival are on sale now. More information is available here.