I had the chance to learn about the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion when I drove from Virginia to Tennessee in January. It isn’t an ordinary music festival, but they tout themselves as an infectious, three-day music experience, bursting with creative passion, electricity, and soul.
Every third weekend in September, State Street in Historic Downtown Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia, is amped to the beat of Appalachia’s past, present, and future. It digs down deep into the roots of traditional Appalachian sound and lifts its branches to new heights. It all happens in the heart of The Birthplace of Country Music, Bristol, the site of the Bristol Sessions.
This year’s date is September 18-20, 2015, which marks its 15th anniversary and they expect more than 60,000 festivarians, artists, volunteers, and vendors, and well over 20 outdoor and indoor stages boasting more acts of live music that is sure to keep you dancing for three days.
Known for booking “musician’s musicians,” the festival takes great care in selecting just the right combination of powerhouse headliners, emerging stars-on-the-rise, and the area’s elite regional and local talent. It isn’t uncommon to see artists among the crowds watching other bands alongside fans. The camaraderie is so palpable, fans and artists become instant “alumni” upon gate entry.
Last year, they had Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Emmylou Harris, WILCO front man Jeff Tweedy, The David Grisman Experience, Moon Taxi, J. Roddy Walston & the Business, to name a few. Festival talent alumni include Dr. Ralph Stanley, the Avett Brothers, Marty Stuart, Patty Loveless, Pam Tillis, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Béla Fleck, Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, and Old Crow Medicine Show. Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion covers the gamut of traditional bluegrass, old-time, Americana, and Piedmont blues, while reaching out to the trajectory of folk-rock and alternative country music acts.
The festival prides itself on the lineup, but downtown is the real showstopper. Its hometown atmosphere provides the perfect ambience for visitors and artists; there are no muddy fields and many unique venues for fans to retreat from the elements.
The majority of stages are located indoors; the beautifully restored Paramount Center for the Arts, Theatre Bristol, and a number of downtown restaurants provide a wide array of local flavor for attendees. Major outdoor stages are strategically built near important downtown landmarks including the State Street Stage, haloed by the legendary Bristol Sign, the Piedmont Stage beside the Bristol Public Library, and the Country Music Mural Stage, facing Bristol’s famous Country Music Mural.
The mural commemorates the Bristol Sessions, the event that catapulted The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers to fame in 1927. The festival footprint covers five city blocks including Cumberland Square Park. A memorial to veterans is housed at the park near a permanent stage, complete with an authentic war helicopter hovering overhead.
The legacy of the Bristol Sessions is relevant and far-reaching; it sings loud and proud in the burgeoning music scene in the twin cities with Bristol Rhythm spirit year-round. Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion offers an array of other activities as well which is great for families, including a Wernick method bluegrass jam camp, a children’s talent contest, a free children’s event, and a chili cook-off.
Bristol Rhythm Roots Reunion is, and isn’t, your Daddy’s country music. Bluegrass is well represented. It’s not necessarily a rock show, but it totally does—and if you’ve never been, you’ll never know how much.
For more information about Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, visit www.BristolRhythm.com.