Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion put together one heck of a bill for its 20th edition, held Sept. 10-12 in the twin cities that straddle the Tennessee-Virginia line. Yet even on a weekend when attendees could watch an acoustic set by John Anderson on Friday night and a festival-stealing appearance by Jim Lauderdale's white-hot band less than 12 hours later, the experience was less about the sounds heard up and down a historic downtown area and more about enjoying time spent in interconnected cities that are even better at music tourism than they are at putting together lineups that rival those of comparable country, folk, old-time and bluegrass gatherings.
As covered elsewhere on the site, officials on both sides of the state line had yet to harness the economic power of a local happening that impacted popular music across the globe when bluegrass picker Tim White designed and painted the Birthplace of Country Music Mural back in the mid-'80s. Now, after over 20 years of successfully pushing to the forefront the story of how sessions arranged locally in 1927 by RCA-Victor's Ralph Peer helped break the careers of formative country acts the Carter Family, the Stoneman Family and Jimmie Rodgers, a long-running festival built off the cities' shared musical legacy hosted one of the weekend's stages at the mural.
Though it was just one of 13 official stages along State Street and its side roads, the mural's schedule alone captures how well the festival celebrated the past by spotlighting the present. A live edition of Radio Bristol's Farm and Fun Time Show, a revival of a live radio program from the '40s and '50s that served as a proving ground for The Stanley Brothers and Jim & Jesse McReynolds, kicked things off on Friday. Regional talents Bill and The Belles hosted an hour-long set with guest appearances by three young women with deep grasps of Appalachian folkways: West Virginian Sierra Ferrell, teenage prodigy Nora Brown and, from a talented Galax, Va. family other than the Stoneman clan, Dori Freeman.
Over the next two days, listeners gathered at the mural for bills highlighted by two Grand Ole Opry regulars: Darin & Brooke Aldridge on Saturday and Rhonda Vincent on Sunday. And on the regional front, Martha Spencer created a Saturday afternoon highlight when she and Third Man recording artist Lillie Mae guest-appeared during honky-tonker Kelsey Rae's set.
A lot more could be said about who all stole the show, but again, the weekend's appeal owed more to the charm of Bristol than a stacked lineup. Instead of being held out in a field somewhere or spread across a major city, festivities took place in a well-preserved downtown area that was closed off to traffic for what was as much a block party as a music festival. Short walks between different stages became excuses to check out local restaurants and antique stores prepared to turn a celebration of country music's "big bang" into a three-day economic boom.
Overall, Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion did a great job celebrating the region's cultural history and musical folkways. In the process, area talents and local business owners benefited in the hear-and-now from Bristol's legacy and its ability to draw stars the caliber of Anderson and Lauderdale to an idyllic, small and Southern town.