Like most festivals, the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion forces those who attend to make critical choices. With 14 stages and such notable artists as Marty Stuart, Sierra Hull, The Mavericks, Nickel Creek, Alison Brown, Margo Price, Kelsey Waldon, Carlene Carter, Watchhouse, and Bruce Hornsby among the headliners, the choices certainly aren’t easy.
Unlike most festivals, the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion takes over an entire town, one that lies on the divide between the Virginia and Tennessee state line. That in itself makes it unique, but given the city’s fabled history as the birthplace of country music and home to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, its location is all the more auspicious.
The history, which dates back to the early 19th century, is evident everywhere, from the classic architecture of the Bristol Hotel and the stately Paramount Theatre, to the electric arch that looms over the end of State Street and declares “Bristol – A Nice Place To Live.” Indeed, it does seem to be so, given its down-home ambience, the number of crafts people and vendors lining both sides of the street, the local musicians that spotlight their talents at an array of pop-up venues, and the general congeniality shared by the citizenry.
Bristol is indeed a place like no other, and once there, it’s hard not to feel impacted by the entire experience.
Unfortunately, weather had its own impact on the proceedings as well. Rain and regular reports of lightning delayed several outdoor shows, and in the case of Tommy Prine, forced a cancellation entirely. A handful of indoor venues allowed some music to continue, but given that most of the performances were held outside — most notably in larger open areas such as the Stage Street Stage, Cumberland Square Park and Piedmont Avenue — space was not only at a premium, but also susceptible to any inclement conditions.
Happily though, the concerts were eventually able to continue unabated — albeit with some delays — and the aforementioned outdoor areas provided opportunity to witness any number of memorable performances. Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives lived up to their name courtesy of a varied set that veered from classic country twang to an unexpectedly down-home take on “Wipe Out.” “Bristol is the surf music capitol of the world,” Stuart declared with no small hint of irony. Nickel Creek and the Mavericks each offered their own admiration courtesy of energetic and enthusiastic evening performances on the Stage Street Stage. Jim Lauderdale shared yet another example of his self-effacing humor in each of his two showcases, while Amethyst Kiah and her combo demonstrated how far she’s come, from traditional troubadour to a powerful performer clearly ready to rumble.
Again, with so many great artists to choose from over a weekend that spanned Friday, September 8 to Sunday, September 10, it wasn’t all that easy to cover it all. Fortunately, the Radio Bristol Farm and Fun Time radio show — a recasting of the classic radio broadcasts of the ‘30s and ‘40s flush with mirth, music and, true to tradition, agricultural reports — offered opportunity to see TK and the Holy Know-Nothings, Kelsey Waldon and hosts Bill and the Belles in the span of a single two-hour showcase while also taking a respite from the rain. Yet even though some expeditious plotting had to be planned in order to take in the action elsewhere, ultimately it was all worth the effort.