This year's Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion celebrated the 95th anniversary of the Bristol Sessions of 1927, the recordings from which became foundational for country music and its subgenres, as well as an important documentation of American music history. The festival took place on the same streets along the Tennessee/Virginia line where Ralph Peer, The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and others recorded those seminal works, and showcased artists who both preserved the sounds of the past and pushed them forward into the future. String band music and folk, gospel and blues tunes were the root of inspiration for most acts. The small town warmth and wealth of creativity on display made for a one-of-a-kind experience.
Fantastic Negrito played Friday night in Bristol's Cumberland Park under a full moon. More on the rhythm and blues end of the festival's spectrum, the Grammy Award-winning artist put on an entertaining and soulful show. From a cover of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine" to "Man with No Name" from recently released album White Jesus Black Problems, he gave a rousing vocal performance and his band showed the crowd how blues rock should be done. Another highlight came later in the set, when he exerted his hypnotic force over the late-night crowd by grabbing his electric guitar and slowing things down with "About a Bird." Fantastic Negrito's dramatic (but authentic) stage presence definitely earned him some new fans.
On Saturday, Miko Marks commanded the Piedmont stage with a brilliant performance. Her cover of "Hard Times Come Again No More," written by Stephen Foster and made famous by Mavis Staples, gave chills. "Gratitude is all around me," she said between playing "Hold It Together" and "Trouble," a newer single that is a nod to John Lewis. Her backing band faded into the background as she broke things down to a moment of palpable emotion during spiritual rock anthem "Feel Like Going Home," and soon after turned things back up for an infectious celebration of joy.
At Bristol's Cameo Theater later that afternoon, Jake Blount and his talented band, which included Nelson Williams on bass, George Jackson on fiddle and Gus Tritsch on guitar and banjo, gave one of the most interesting sets of the festival. Blount and co. began with "The Downward Road," which was released just days after the festival. After moving through a few covers, they played an electrified rendition of Mahalia Jackson's "City Called Heaven." Blount delivered stoic vocals on "Death Have Mercy," his version inspired by Vera Hall's recording. Disco elements sparkled over haunting strings. Within the song, the oldest banjo tune ever recorded was part of the arrangement, and Blount read a poem by Jupiter Hammon, the first published Black poet in North America, via vocoder. The song, which will appear on his new album The New Faith, was visceral when played live. It proved Blount's keen ability to stretch further back into the past for material and inspiration, and push folk music farther into the future sonically, simultaneously. Blount and his band played fiddle tunes for the last portion of the set, including songs from 2020 record Spider Tales. With "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" by Lead Belly but inspired by Nirvana's MTV Unplugged version, they combined electric guitar with fiddle and bass for a modern spin on old-time string band style. Blount provided historical context to each song in his set, making it as educational and thought-provoking as it was entertaining.
Farm and Fun Time
Saturday evening, there was a special Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion edition of Farm and Fun Time, an old-time variety show broadcast monthly on Radio Bristol and televised on regional PBS stations. The show originally ran from 1946-1950 and the radio station revived it in 2017. It was uniquely Bristol and provided a window into Appalachian music history and the local culture. Kris Truelson hosted, along with his four-piece string band Bill and the Belles. They sang country songs and commercial jingles to open the show and between performers. Their crystal harmonies evoked the music from the program's original iteration, and bluegrass in its earliest form. The all-age audience, packed tightly into the beautiful Paramount Center, whistled, hollered and genuinely enjoyed themselves. North Carolina's Green Grass Cloggers, a group that has been around for 50 years, danced to a tune from the band. The highlight of this particular broadcast was Del McCoury Band. The bluegrass veteran charmed the audience effortlessly with his witty stage banter and golden voice. McCoury led on guitar, throwing in some of his signature G-runs with flair on many of the songs played, while his sons Ronnie and Robbie McCoury played mandolin and banjo, respectively. Since the festival was in downtown Bristol along the Tennessee / Virginia state line, they played a song for each state: "Cabin on a Mountain" and "Shenandoah Waltz." They jammed- old school style on one microphone- on gospel tune "I'll Put on a Crown." "It's been good pickin' on you folks," Del McCoury said and winked before breaking into original cut "All Aboard."
Sunday afternoon brought rain to the outdoor stages but that didn't stop the music. Among many solo acoustic singer-songwriter sets, returning festival guest Jeremy Ivey stood out. His songs were cynical in the best way and contained equal parts honest observation, optimism, acceptance and humor. He played "Tomorrow People" from his 2020 album Waiting Out the Storm and "Orphan Child" from his latest record Invisible Pictures. After running through most of his setlist (and a rain storm that briefly dispersed the audience), Ivey played several newer and unreleased songs. The sun came out as he sang the thoughtful lyrics of one called "Father Sun." His understated stage demeanor and folky sound landed somewhere between Elliott Smith and Neil Young. The set ranged in emotional tone, from tender love song "Trial by Fire" to the darker "Snowball's Chance in Hell" and "Christmas in Tent City." "This is a nostalgic song. I usually don't write that kind of song but I guess I'm getting old," he quipped before playing "Years of Life," a favorite in the set.
Emily Scott Robinson
After great shows from the likes of Molly Tuttle and Jim Lauderdale, Emily Scott Robinson was one of the final performers of the weekend. On a small outdoor stage in the bright afternoon sun, she brought the rowdy festival crowd to awe with her delicate and clever songwriting. She played well-loved songs "Things You Learn the Hard Way," "If Trouble Comes A Lookin'" and "Cheap Seats," with Americana duo Violet Bell. Omar Ruiz-Lopez switched between fiddle and guitar and Lizzy Ross sang harmonies. Robinson's magnificent voice shined when she got behind the keyboard for the transformational "Let 'Em Burn." She sang a particularly touching song, written and released during the pandemic, called "The Time for Flowers," inspired by a line from the book A Gentleman in Moscow. Ross and Ruiz-Lopez complemented Robinson beautifully on new track "Men in Moons," from her just announced, upcoming album Built On Bones, written from the perspective of the three witches in Shakespeare's Macbeth. Tears flowed through the audience during the song "Overalls," about her friend's father's final wishes. Robinson has an ability to tell stories- her own and those of people with vastly different experiences- with emotional intelligence in a way that uses specific details to convey universal feelings.
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