Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion 2019

We provide our take on Bristol’s festival

Sam Bush – Photo: LTTL

Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion

20 to 22 September 2019

GrassRoots Music Tour

Images: Jim Jacob

Words: Rob Dickens


Now in its 19th year, Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion celebrates the roots of Bristol as a keystone of country music. REAL country music that is – as Darrell Scott opined this year, that’s “pre-‘Urban Cowboy’!”.

This award-winning event originated as a celebration of the 1927 Bristol Sessions, held in historic downtown Bristol.

With 19 indoor and outdoor stages filled with just about every kind of traditional music you can find, it is the easiest and most fulfilling festival imaginable. Everything is within about six blocks, the terrain flat, the colour vivid, the history oozing. Great food (Island Noodles had the longest lines), independent local craft and clothing, art galleries, restaurants nestled along nearby State Street and the neighboring thoroughfares, street performances and happy, polite patrons. All within walking distance of the site of the 1927 Bristol Sessions and the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.

Big Highlights

Marty Stuart – Photo: LTTL

Marty Stuart is country royalty. For over 40 years, this five-time Grammy winning multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter, photographer and historian has carved an enviable career. His band since 2002 is the Fabulous Superlatives – Kenny Vaughn (guitar), Chris Scruggs (bass) [grandson of Earl Scruggs] and Harry Stinson (drums).

A terrific set on the Piedmont Stage was evident to a full crowd. Many songs from their latest great album – the trippy, surf rock Way Out West (see our review) – a couple of instrumentals, “Old Mexico” and the catchy “Time Don’t Wait”. Plus “Tear The Woodpile Down”, “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin'”, the reflective “Six White Horses”, “High On A Mountain Top”, Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd”, “North To Alaska”, Red Foley’s “Tennessee Saturday Night”, a wacky country version of “Wipe Out” and a solo Stuart mandolin take on “Orange Blossom Special”. Class.

Darrell Scott provided some of the most sublime moments of the festival. With his bluegrass band – Luke Bulla on fiddle (a late replacement for Shad Cobb), Bryn Davies on bass and Matt Flinner (banjo and mandolin), they played the Country Mural Stage, facing a giant portrait of The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and Ralph Peer who was responsible for the 1927 Bristol Sessions. The space was packed. The set list included “With A Memory Like Mine”, “Family Tree”, an exquisite cover of Paul Simon‘s “American Tune”, an extended take on “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”. “It’s A Great Day To Be Alive” had the entire crowd joining in (a wonderful moment). In deference to the place, he gave us his take on “Keep On The Sunny Side Of Life” by The Carter Family.

An elderly man front left of stage, struggled to get up from his walker, steadied himself and joined in the standing ovation – no words of mine can compete with that gesture.

Ray Wylie Hubbard – Photo: LTTL

Ray Wylie Hubbard closed out the Piedmont Stage on Sunday. It was hot, both musically and weather-wise. Ray Wylie was accompanied by his 26 year old son Lucas on guitar and Kyle Schneider on drums (no bass). Some classic RWH tunes – “Rabbit”, “Snake Farm”, the Hayes Carll co-write “Drunken Poet’s Dream”, “Mother Blues” (‘It was just the first of many bad decisions I was to make for the next 20 years’), the title track from his latest album “Tell The Devil I’m Gettin’ There As Fast As I Can” (the album cut features Lucinda Williams and Eric Church), “Cooler-N-Hell” segues into JJ Cale’s “Crazy Mama” and “Choctaw Bingo”. Rascally, independent – just the way we like it.

Other Highlights

Yarn – Photo: LTTL

Fifteen years back, alt. country outfit Yarn started up in New York. Lovers of narratives, the songs reach out – take the gravitas of “American Dream Dying” for one. An appealing set of original sounds and songs and a country-infused “Cleaning Windows”. At the 6th Street Stage.

Circus No. 9 – Photo: LTTL

Progressive bluegrass from Circus No. 9 was intriguing on the Country Mural Stage. From East Tennessee, this quartet played their third Bristol festival and have landed a prestigious IBMA Momentum nomination this year. The isolationist “Headphones”, the jazz vocals of “Kind Of Cool” and a fascinating cover of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis Tennessee” provided much to ponder and enjoy.

Farm and Fun Time – Photo: LTTL

Farm and Fun Time – the live radio version – filled out the Paramount Theatre again on Saturday night. Bill and the Belles, the Hogslop String Band, the hopping Green Grass Hoggers, a recipe for creamed corn, a video on beekeeping, ad jingles and Dustbowl Revival. All of life’s joys covered in two hours.

Michigan Rattlers – Photo: LTTL

Life-long friends make up Michigan Rattlers and they made us take notice on the Cumberland Stage with plenty of musical and folk rock chemistry from this four-piece – Graham Young (guitar), Adam Reed (bass), Christian Wilder (piano) and Tony Audia (drums). The band’s debut full-length Evergreen was released twelve months ago. Judging by the line of patrons after the set, I was not the only one super-impressed.

It took me five visits to Bristol to find Cafe Bloom. Seeking a shady spot and a morsel to nourish, I happened to witness two-time Grammy winners Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer mixing traditional songs and wonderful harmonies with Sam Gleaves – authentic Appalachian ballads and dance tunes – glorious.

Dillon Carmichael might just be the next big Country Voice. From the small town of Burgin Kentucky via Nashville, this guy’s rich baritone and growling holler echoed through the 6th Street Stage – a publishing deal at the age of 18, a promising debut Hell on an Angel and a career constantly referencing ‘What Would Hank Williams Do?’ Sounds eminently successful.


Ken Burns‘ documentary series Country Music has been airing in the United States as we have been travelling around, the interest and the references have been abundant and excited.

Here we are in one of the great musically significantly places in the country, a town that is awakening to the possibilities and opportunities that are endless. I am a foreigner, but a keen observer with an eye that is opened annually as I visit here, perhaps capturing nuances that are harder for locals.

The town has kept its history while slumbering. This will be of immense benefit as the revitalization continues, within the town and its generous and warm people. Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion is growing a pace and Country Music which features this town in episode one, might just lift the lid off Bristol VA/TN, revealing its merits across an enormous untapped and tuneful landscape.

I’ll be back to observe the next instalment with great anticipation.

See you in Bristol in 2020 – 11 to 13 September.

Check out our pictorials – DAY ONE, DAY TWO and DAY THREE.



We provide our take on Bristol’s festival

We provide our take on Bristol’s festival

We provide our take on Bristol’s festival

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Author: Rob Dickens

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