Bristol is always the last festival of the season and as such, causes reflection. In 2011, I was ill and could not go to Bristol or any other event. It has been a long journey since then and I am extremely fortunate to have been given the chance to continue to live my life in a meaningful way.
Incredibly, I attended five wonderful festivals this year. Some were difficult to get to and enjoy, and others went even better than expected. Because of my wonderful wife, Gwen’s assistance, we got through it all, my health held up allowing me to enjoy this year differently than any other.
The drive to Bristol is about 7 ½ hours without stopping and is the longest festival trip we take each year. I enjoyed spending most of the 70s in Knoxville and always like coming back to Tennessee for good music and a nice vibe. I hope Bristol meets our expectations. The lineup is great.
Since we hadn’t been to this festival for two years, we found a few changes. First the venue was made larger by moving the border fences out one city block in some cases provided some relief for people trying to walk from one stage to another. The second big change was to move the Piedmont stage up the street, making more overall space and allowing the installation of two beer and food gardens in the area where the stage used to be. Finally, we noticed while reading this years’ festival information, that there were many more outdoor stages of moderate size than we ever knew. There seemed to be less ‘band in the restaurant’ type venues. Certainly, there were more stages and beer gardens on the Virginia side of State Street than I’ve ever seen. If you haven’t been to Bristol VA/TN, you need to know that the main street is called State Street straddling the VA/TN state line. Tennessee is on one side of the street and Virginia on the other side. So a stage on State Street is half in TN and half in VA.
Moving from stage to stage is a difficult task. Walking from one end of the festival near the Mural Stage to the opposite end of State Street and the State Street Stage is about five city blocks. Trouble was that there were thousands of people packing the street between the two stages. Perhaps the biggest problem (maybe only?), with Bristol R&R is pedestrian traffic. Because there are so many food and ware vendors lining both sides of the fairly narrow State Street, there is very little room for the crowd to flow from one stage to another. Walking behind the vendors but in front of the local business storefronts worked some of the time, but as more people struggled to move, the ‘secret’ route in front of the stores and behind the vendors got too crowded also.
The first thing we got to see was Kenny Vaughn. Kenny is a really fine electric blues guitar player. He usually plays with Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives. Kenny was spellbinding as he played blues and rockabilly guitar accompanied by just bass and drums. He was comfortable to listen to and he personally seemed very at ease doing his show which was a real treat. ‘Cousin’ Kenny is not just a sideman; this guy can play and sing on his own.
We got to see Bearfoot and Folk Soul Revival in the Paramount as part of the WDVX Tennessee Shines live broadcast. The place was packed and getting a seat took waiting in line. We really went to see Bearfoot, but their set was apparently over. We got in finding Folk Soul performing. Turns out they are a turbo old time group with mediocre instrumentals and adequate singing. They had a snappy beat and used it to great advantage as the crowd loved them, even if I didn’t.
I didn’t plan on seeing Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers. But because of the crush to get into the Paramount, and the jammed up street, we went to the State Street Stage to see Zoe because there was seating. The show was good. We enjoyed the show more than expected. Seeing them allowed me to stay in my seat and save seats for others during the changeover.
I was re-introduced to Billy Joe Shaver about a year ago. I have been waiting to see him ever since. He didn’t disappoint. He was rough, dirty, foul mouthed (a bit), and generally acting, playing, and singing the part of one of the Texas Outlaws from the 70’s. He wrote and performed many hits and others have done his songs like ‘I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal,’ (Merle Haggard) and ‘Honky Tonk Heroes‘, (Waylon Jennings). Somewhere later in the show, Billie Joe started talking about drug addiction and the death of his son, Eddie. The mood turned to more of a religious witnessing than a rowdy western concert. It was like the tale of two shows, one very good, one very strange and somewhat religious. Praise Jesus!
After Billy Joe, there was still time to catch half of the City and Colour group at Piedmont Stage. I read that this group is really popular in Canada, perhaps their most popular band today. We stopped at the stage and quickly realized that the master sound on the stage was set way too high. If almost hurt your ears. After listening for a while, we decided to call it an evening.
Saturday is always the big day with many shows and choices. The first show was Sierra Hull and Highway 111. As always, she had a very tight band which included young Clay Walker on Dobro, who has played with Sierra on and off since both were about 15 years old. She has a patter between songs that is pure County and Western and nice singing ability to go with it. She played almost half instrumentals this show. In the past, her shows featured more vocal tunes and more charming of the crowd. Sierra is a fabulous mandolin player and writer. Her set allowed her to showcase her mandolin virtuosity. Very enjoyable.
After missing Bearfoot on Friday, we made a point of trying to see them Saturday. They were playing at Theatre Bristol, a tiny theatre used by the local acting group. The place was packed and everyone loved the band. I believe this is the 4th iteration of this band with only two of the original members still with them. Surprisingly, Mike Bub played bass and Megan McCormick, from east Tennessee was on guitar. Their blonde fiddle player, Nora Jane Strouthers, (not Odessa!) was not with them. Their website indicated that she was still in the band? They still were good. Nice vocals. I enjoyed them and will go to see them again if I get the chance.
The overall crowd in downtown Bristol was large enough for us to realize any thoughts of simply choosing a show without any planning was not going to work. My wife wanted to see Chris Thomas King, (yes from ‘O’Brother’) at the Paramount Theater. To do this we had to make sure that we got in line about the same time the previous act was finishing. We had to sit through a 20 minute stage setup, but we made it. Chris Thomas King was worth the wait and really good. His electric blues stuff was really nice for a Saturday afternoon. The final third of the program was dedicated to tunes from ‘O’Brother.’ Of course he did ‘Candyman’ from the movie, but strangely enough he performed songs that others performed in the movie. He even sang, ‘Man of Constant Sorrow,’ which of course Dan Tyminski sang and George Clooney smiled and lip synched in the movie.
One of the new indoor venues is called The Cradle. It’s an old storefront converted into a kind of coffee house with stage. Beer is served, of course. And it is on the Tennessee side of the street. We stopped in there after Chris Thomas King to see Brittany Haas and Lauren Rioux on fiddle and viola. These ladies have played in various ensembles headed by violin great, Daryl Anger throughout this summer. Their old timey music was spot on and their more progressive music was great. Nice little venue and a really great show.
We missed the beginning of Hotclub of Cowtown. Alana James is a great western swing fiddler. That band can really swing. And she has a gigantic smile that just won’t quit. Maybe it was the sun, but she was always smiling obviously having a good time. More than Alana, Whit Smith on guitar and vocals, and slap bass player Jake Erwin were terrific in their own right. Swing tunes like ‘Take Me Out To Tulsa’ were great. When the band played bluegrass tunes, they just weren’t quite as good. On the other hand, when these guys swing, they really swing. I’d surely go see them again.
Because of multiple stages with high quality acts appearing at the same time, difficult choices sometimes have to be made. We were faced with a series of shows we wanted to see that overlapped. I like to see entire sets if possible. Today we had to catch portions of a series of bands we wanted to see making sure we got to see as much of the set as possible. We chose to walk to the Piedmont stage midway up State Street to check out David Mayfield. We had attended three festivals earlier in the year at which Mayfield appeared and we were not able to see his show. We hadn’t seen Mayfield in a few years since he appeared with Cadillac Sky at Merlefest. I had an idea that the show would be over the top with stage antics and gyrations. We almost immediately saw that my hunch was correct. We stayed to see about five extended tunes. During that time, we saw David sing, play guitar standing, and play guitar from his back, jumping, and generally causing musical mayhem. Now I am not so sorry that I missed him earlier in the summer. His band might have been good, but same as last night for City & Colour, the sound was too loud to hear clearly.
We continued up State Street to the Country Mural stage, having missed the first ten minutes of the Boxcars show to see David Mayfield. The Boxcars are perhaps the most talented new straight modern bluegrass band going today. The skill of Adam Steffey and Ron Stewart makes this band instrumentally fantastic. In addition to multiple IBMA award winning instrumentals, their vocal work and tune selections make these guys great.
Staying to the end of the Boxcars meant that we missed the beginning of the Black Lillies. The Lillies drew a great crowd on the State Street Stage. Everyone sang the words to their ‘airplay hits’ like ‘Four Cold Walls and a Window.’ This is the second great band Cruz Contreraz has gotten together. Following up the CC Stringband with the Black Lillies demonstrates how talented he is. I really liked their electric county rock show.
Leaving the Lillies a bit early allowed us to see a large portion of the Steep Canyon Rangers set. I keep realizing that the Rangers may also be one of the best straight modern bluegrass bands going today. They have great stage presence, great vocals, and write great songs. I always like these guys (when they are not playing with Steve Martin). Their a cappella gospel songs are outstanding.
I took a final trip back down State Street to see Robert Earl Keen. I really like his music. I’ve seen him before at Merlefest, but never before got the sense of total comfort and enjoyment he has as he tells his stories in his music. I was pleasantly surprised when his band broke into a nice version of ‘Rider.’ I had to leave Robert Earl early so I could go back to the Country Mural Stage at the other end of the festival to see the last half of Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver. Doyle is from Kingsport, TN, about 20 miles from Bristol. Since he is local, he usually puts on a nice heartfelt show here. This show had that sincere homespun feel to it. Doyle and the boys did a nice amount of his classic gospel arrangements. Doyle even broke out some hot picking near the end of the show. As he often does, Doyle had the boys perform a super version of ‘Blue Train,’ with its fabulous harmonies and high lonesome sound. This was a nice way to end a long day of great music.
We got an early start on Sunday so we could see the Matt Flinner Trio at a totally new (to me) stage on one of the side streets. The crowd was tiny. Noon is a bit too early I guess, but the crowd increased throughout the set. The music was nothing short of fantastic. I’ve seen Matt with several other groups over the years and always knew his prowess. The band even talked about performing ‘Concerts du Jour’ where the band writes all of the music for a show in the morning and performs it the same evening. The level of understanding of the music and the unity of the little guitar, bass, and mandolin trio allowed these guys music to flow. It felt very good on a comfortable Sunday morning. Also kind of neat was the knowledge that my daughter, who lives on the Oregon coast messaged us to say she was streaming the Matt Flinner show in her apartment at 9AM Pacific time.
The band Elephant Revival was unknown to me going into the weekend. I read the basic bio info and it appeared like these guys could be real good. They are from Boulder and have a woman who plays washboard, wearing long gloves that have finger picks attached. (I saw her before the set quietly ‘installing’ her picks on her gloves with needle nose pliers.) Sometimes she even played the bowed saw. I thought the music at times was very good but sometimes it was very slow and plodding. The fiddler was very good and some of the vocal work was good. I’ll have to see these guys again to form a full opinion.
We left the Elephants early for Dale Ann Bradley with Steve Gulley and her band. She is what country music used to be. Her band is all about great singing, great harmonies, and fine picking. I’ve seen her better than today, but even on not her best day, she is better than most bands today.
We got to stay at the same venue to see Balsam Range. We’ve seen them at Merlefest and really liked them. They are basically a very tight straight ahead modern bluegrass band with fine singing. I was slightly surprised and pleased when they played their cover of the Allman Brother’s ‘One Way Out.’ These guys were extremely good this afternoon.
One last time going from one end of State Street to the other to get good seats for the Sam Bush Band. We were going to be a bit early for Sammy. Down the street we saw an opportunity to check out one of the venues and see fiddler and dancer, April Verch. This show in a very small theatre was packed. There was there was some nice energy. I have Natalie MacMaster bias and did not find April as good as I had hoped. Her band was very talented. So was she, but it just was not what I really hoped for.
The festival organizers presented fans with an impossible choice to close the festival. Scheduled at the same time on separate stages early Sunday evening were the Gibson Brothers (2012 IBMA Entertainers of the Year), Tift Merritt (former Chris Austin Songwriting Contest Winner), and the Sam Bush Band. Three wonderful acts. There was no way to run between them spending more time traveling than listening to the music. The choice was straightforward – Sam Bush Band. This show will be the 41st show I have seen of Sam’s band’s if you include New Grass Revival shows.
There was a delay getting Sam Bush Band set up on stage. They started about 20 minutes late. When Sammy came on stage everything got electric. The anticipation was energizing. The band rips into the prelude to ‘Bringing in the Georgia Mail’, with Sammy playing fiddle. The crowd loved it. I did too. After a wonderful jammy version of Puppies ‘N’ Knapsacks, Sam came to the microphone, welcomed and waved to all the bluegrass lovers in the crowd, and the show really took off from there. Silly Sam humor, great tunes, fantastic picking and singing by the band, and Sam’s current band – Wow! Sam got out his old mandolin, Hoss, to cover the Beatles ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face.’ Then he performed Darrell Scott’s tune, ‘Picasso’s Mandolin’, this was a pleasant surprise. Sam told the crowd that they probably hadn’t heard them do it before. Sam played for a bit more than two hours and went well past the planned 7PM stop time pulling out his Fender electric mandolin to rock out on ‘Speak of the Devil.’ His show was very satisfying and joyful. For me, this is why I travel to see shows. Every now and then a show has no time. Before you know it, it is over. No thought of looking at your watch.
Our weekend in Bristol at the Rhythm and Roots Reunion was really enjoyable. At first, the large crowds and poor flow made it hard to truly enjoy the music. We learned when to move, where to walk, and that the crowds do thin out as the evening goes on. The music was great as always. Why do we come to Bristol? The music of course. A whole weekend of killer music from great artists in a wonderful cross section of Americana genres. Getting to spend the weekend with our son and his girlfriend added to the weekend for me and my wife. Sometimes it is hard to get up and go see live music. But sometimes there are moments that prove that it’s worth it.