Bristol’s Place in the Music Scheme of Thing.
By Rob Dickens.
Rhythm & Roots Reunion, Bristol Virginia/Tennessee
Location, location, location, they say!
It applies to everything, even music festivals. Here I am in Bristol which is officially recognised as The Birthplace of Country Music. For it was here in 1927 where Ralph Peer, with the most advanced equipment of the day, began the recording careers of The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and others.
Another event is attributed to the town – the Burger Bar downtown is where, legend has it, Hank Williams had his final meal before his death on New Year’s Day 1953. Mike Farris called Bristol a ‘spiritual portal’ akin to the Catskill Mountains.
There is a real sense of renewal here and the town has a lot of initiatives going, largely on the back of its place in music history. The relatively new Birthplace of Country Museum is one, so is the resurgence of Radio Bristol. Gold Ship Records is yet another. Founder/owner Michael Sergent made the romantic, as opposed to business-strategic decision, to base his operations here. It started in 2013 right in the heart of downtown and is a fiercely independent label with about a dozen artists.
As well as Radio Bristol, the Museum manages the Rhythm & Roots Reunion festival which is into its sixteenth year. I have been wanting to come to the event for a while but it has traditionally clashed with the Americana Music Conference. This year it does not, (although Farm Aid is on about 5 hours away – always plenty of choices on the US festival circuit).
Americana, rock ‘n’ roll, singer-songwriter, Southern Gothic, alt-folk, rock, bluegrass, roots, country, hillbilly, blues, ragtime, Dixieland jazz, gospel, progressive rock, Appalachian swing, old-time mountain, classical, world, ska, rockabilly, old-time, funk, alternative, alt. country, folk, western swing, pop, alt. rock, punk, soul, r’n’b, jam, Celtic folk, Irish traditional, psychobilly. These are the descriptors in the official program for the music genres for artists appearing here – as you can see, the event is not wanting for diversity.
The headliners are Buddy Guy, Houndmouth, Bobby Bare (the latter replacing Loretta Lynn who pulled out for health reasons), Marty Stuart, Indigo Girls, Steep Canyon Rangers, Darrell Scott, Mike Farris, Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn, Anderson East and Balsam Range.
Three days, twenty stages (all in the heart of the city and within easy walking distance), over 140 performers and 800 volunteers. The town has retained its traditions, the buildings and retail, reflecting years gone by. It is a little dusty perhaps, but the past has not been bulldozed down as has happened in many other US cities. It is an increasingly vibrant scene, with much scope to cement its importance economically and musically, with the right business acumen.
The memorable moments were many.
Respected singer-songwriter Darrell Scott‘s set had him accompanied by the great Kenny Malone on drums and Bryn K Davies on acoustic bass. Scott’s guitar work was exemplary throughout, with his version of Paul Simon‘s ‘American Tune’ brilliant.
The best moments, however, related to Scott’s old, recently-deceased friend Guy Clark. First, Scott sang the opening track from his new album The Couchville Sessions (‘Down to The River’, which features Clark doing a rare voice-over and which was broadcast tonight over the P.A. on cue. Second, Scott provided a moving rendition of Clark’s ‘Desperados Waiting for a Train’. Third, and most poignantly, at the perfect moment at the close of the song, a freight train blew its whistle and shuffled past only meters behind the stage, as if it was part of the act.
The Forlorn Strangers are sort-of based out of Nashville. Their stuff is in storage and the band has been on the road for over twelve months. All the band members write and the collective is the epitome of a shared ideal of working together which has led to a debut full-length self-titled release this year. Live, their sharp harmonies, vitality on stage and strong writing are features. When I was chatting with them, I was really taken by their common set of values and their mutual regard. They night be planning a children’s album next – definitely different.
The third full-length effort from Los Angeles-based duo HONEYHONEY (3) was produced by man-in-demand Dave Cobb. It is an album born from fascination with light and dark, beauty and danger. On stage, the duo was a force of nature – lead singer/banjo player/violinist Suzanne Santo provides a real striking presence while vocalist/guitarist Ben Jaffe provides the engine room with gritty guitar twists. Their harmony-driven brand of driving indie roots rock is a little akin to Shovels & Rope, but they do mix it up more, with their sound ever changing.
Another band to watch is The Americans. Formed in Los Angeles, the band performs original rock & roll with deep roots in traditional American music. A heady mix. The lead singer is very charismatic on stage, having that J.D. McPherson-authentic presence. A new album to be released this year – I’ll Be Yours. T Bone Burnett is a big fan of this outfit for good reason.
Aaron Lee Tasjan is on the ‘hot radar’ at the moment. A young performer from hip East Nashville, he has been heralded as ‘one to watch’ for the crowded Americana Music Festival bill next week. I had, in fact, seen him just one week ago in North Carolina where he did not make a huge impression on me (he was acoustic solo and I was distracted by talking to some locals, admittedly). This time though, he was a revelation. A four-piece that rocked the Paramount Theatre Stage. He has the looks of Gram Parsons and the band does rocking boogies like T Rex.
Tasjan has a healthy sense of humour as well, together with some great stage antics. At one point, his vocal mike collapsed and lay about a foot off the floor as if exhausted by the work it was being given. The front man’s solution was to join it on the floor, not missing a beat vocally or guitar-wise. The whole band was late for the set (got lost) but set themselves up in lightning quick time and, sans sound-check, blasted powerfully off the starting line. Look out for this guy!
Texan Hayes Carll has been an alt. country feature for a while, with his last three releases capturing attention – Trouble In Mind (2008), KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories) (2011) and 2016’s Lovers and Leavers. Today he was part of a trio with a light drum kit (‘can’t afford a full set’) and a pedal steel/electric masterful guitarist. His is a casual and amusing stage presence, like he’s talking to folk on his front porch over a beer. The songs included ‘Bad Liver and a Broken Heart’, the driving, talking blues, ‘KMAG YOYO’, the rolling, country blues of ‘Bible on the Dash’ and ‘Chances Are’ (which Lee Ann Womack recorded). I was won over.
Twenty-four year old Dori Freeman’s debut album is a spell-binder. It is her pure and definitive voice and her acknowledgement to the traditions of the Appalachian Mountains (they say ‘App-a-latch-un’ here). Freeman comes from the tiny but very important music town of Galax, Virginia, where a deep vein of music traditions run through generations.
Freeman’s album was produced by Teddy Thompson and is crammed full of originals which demonstrate a surprising maturity. On stage she played not as many songs from the new release as I expected. There was also ‘Cold Cold Heart’ by Hank Williams, Doc Watson‘s ‘Your Lone Heart’, her artist-grandfather’s own song about a biting dog (sung unaccompanied), the traditional spiritual ‘I’m Working On A Building’. Her guitar style is simple and I would like to see her with more backing. But, what a voice.
Mike Farris’ take on ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’ at the intimate Museum auditorium, and his later set on the State Street Stage were worthy of note. Even though he was solo, acoustic and seated, he still was able to command attention with that rich, soulful voice.
Joe Purdy played four powerful songs from his new album Who Will Be Next which pose a lot of serious and uncomfortable questions about behaviours and values today.
Named after Ukrainian nomads, Scythian (sith-ee-yin) plays Celtic folk-rock with thunderous energy and fine storytelling, which lends itself to a lively dance audience experience. Horseshoes & Hand Grenades offer a vibrancy based on bluegrass, old-time and folk music – tub-thumping lively drinking-with-friends songs. The band won a competition place at the esteemed Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2012 and has since shared the stage with Trampled by Turtles, The Travelin’ McCourys, Merle Haggard and Marty Stuart.
Unfortunately, the rain set in with about two hours still to go, which caused people to leave early and the outdoor stages to be pretty sparse. A damp way to finish up.
Rhythm & Roots Reunion is a LOT of fun – the scale, set-up, friendly locals and facilities all lend themselves to a grand music experience. Oh, and there could not be a more significant music setting.
There is an iconic sign at the end of State Street which was erected in the 1920’s which proclaims ‘Bristol is a Good Place to Place to Live’. I think that is a little modest. Bristol is the perfect place to have a festival.
*Two mayors, two of every police organisation, double court systems, overlapping sets of legislation, different utilities etc. Must make for an interesting time!