November 2021 - The Birthplace of Country Music
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A Big Festival ‘Thank You!’: Gratitude Playlist Included!

After cancelling Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion in 2020 due to the pandemic, it was great to be back on State Street this past September dancing with friends, making new ones, and enjoying great live music again. Sometimes we take for granted that there will “always be next year” but, when 2020 didn’t happen the way we had planned, we realized just how quickly things can change. Something extraordinary could derail any of us at any given moment, so it’s important to take stock in the moment, grasp tight to any positivity one can muster, and not get mired down in circumstances we have no control over. That’s why having the festival in 2021 was so important – not just to the Birthplace of Country Music as an organization, but also to our Historic Downtown Bristol community and to the artists and the fans who count on us to curate a quality event.

The saying “a rising tide lifts all boats” applies here. Bristol Rhythm has become a family tradition that not only lifts our community economically, but it also brings us together and elevates our spirits on a deeply emotional level that’s just good for the soul. The logistics of the festival are somewhat simple – meaning we don’t offer corporate activations like free hair salon tents, silent discos or ferris wheels – instead we focus on the charm and history of Bristol’s beautiful downtown and great live music without distraction. After all, we want our guests to fall in love with the setting, the artists and their music, and the overall good vibes. Personal struggles, social class, and political affiliations are checked at the gate, and we genuinely enjoy being a community of music lovers. We’re making core memories to last a lifetime, and hopefully they’re all positive.

Though our 20th anniversary celebration presented some challenges with last-minute lineup changes and navigating COVID, we did our best to stay positive and focused on festivalgoers’ overall enjoyment. Despite the hiccups, we had a solid turnout and the music was simply blissful! The magical spark that makes Historic Downtown Bristol so special during Bristol Rhythm was ignited once again and, if only for three short days, the world was harmonious. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Purple and yellow stage lights shining down on members of the band Blackberry Smoke performing on the State Street Stage at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion 2021. The image has been taken with forced perspective so it seems to curve at the bottom and show the whole stage set-up.
BlackBerry Smoke at Bristol Rhythm 2021

If you know, you know – meaning that those of us who attend Bristol Rhythm have a deep reverence for it. There are always people who will never truly get it unless they come here. As Communications Manager, I have spent nearly two decades pitching the festival to major music publications. We’ve had a few nice write-ups here and there, but nothing like what we received this year – thanks to the help of publicist Danielle Dror at Victory Lap. With her tenacity and great connections, around 40 reporters and journalists from a diverse group of media outlets attended Bristol Rhythm in 2021, many for the first time. Some of their words made me literally cry tears of joy, and I want to share them with you here:

  • “The Reunion should be counted in the top ten most influential and enriching festivals in roots music. With its location in the heart of a rural region rich in country music talent and history, it’s helped burnish Americana’s integrity as a music field that doesn’t only rely on or reflect the cosmopolitan values that suffuse the upcoming Nashville AmericanaFest. At the same time, Bristol’s heritage has never been more relevant.” – WMOT
  • “The environment and atmosphere were nothing short of magical; as if Jimmie Rodgers, The Carters, and the others were watching over everybody celebrating the beauty of what they started 100 years ago.” – Music Mecca
  • “Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion did a great job celebrating the region’s cultural history and musical folkways. In the process, area talents and local business owners benefited in the hear-and-now from Bristol’s legacy and its ability to draw stars the caliber of Anderson and Lauderdale to an idyllic, small and Southern town.” – Wide Open Country
  • “[Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion] may be our favorite festival yet. We encourage music fans to visit this special gathering in its next editions.” – JRod Concerts Podcast
  • “There is a neo-traditionalist movement afoot that has the potential to dynamically alter the future of country music. Far from the madding crowds of Nashville’s Lower Broadway and the boardrooms and industry offices on nearby Music Row, it’s happening in the genre’s ancestral home of Bristol – on the Tennessee/Virginia border – at the city’s Rhythm & Roots Reunion.” – The Boot
  • “Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion blended sounds both old and new, offering a variety of current and up-and-coming artists in the place where country music started a century ago. The festival continued to honor and carry forward traditions established in the city known as the Birthplace of Country Music.” – Blue Ridge Outdoors
  • “Bristol Rhythm & Roots is a festival that inspires artists and upholds tradition. Seeing the return of the festival following last year’s cancellation, bringing together musicians and music lovers for a weekend of communal camaraderie in reverence to the music that was made there, the words of a Carter Family classic still ring true for it is evident that the ‘circle will remain unbroken’.” – The Alternate Root
  • “The 20th Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion defines best as a triumph. From Radio Bristol’s Farm and Fun Time show at the Country Music Mural on Friday afternoon through Saturday night’s scintillating Blackberry Smoke performance and Sunday’s eloquent set from Son Little on State Street, attendees luxuriated in music courtesy [of] Rhythm & Roots.” – Bristol Herald-Courier
Photo of Danielle Dror and Charlene Baker riding in a golf cart at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion.
Publicist Danielle Dror and me on a golf cart at Bristol Rhythm 2021

I want to take the time to thank each and every one of you who stayed with us through thick and thin, and for everyone who has supported us over the years. From our fans and volunteers to our sponsors and artists, you are responsible for making Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion the best music festival ever, and we appreciate you for helping us achieve all the things we couldn’t have achieved on our own. We really needed that support this year, and we are grateful for you in a million different ways.

As we sit down at our tables on Thursday to give thanks, we offer you an abundance of gratitude for your generosity, good will, kindness, and understanding through what has been a difficult time for all of us. May you be in the presence of those you love most this Thanksgiving – well wishes for a healthy, happy holiday and brighter days ahead for us all! We hope you enjoy our Bristol Rhythm Gratitude Spotify playlist as you gather and know you are forever in our hearts:

Charlene Baker is the Communications Manager at the Birthplace of Country Music.

Radio Bristol Spotlight: Ed Snodderly

Radio Bristol is proud to offer a platform to local and regional artists, artists who are often underrepresented on a national level yet deserving of that audience. In expanding upon Radio Bristol’s core mission, we are pleased to bring you our Radio Bristol Spotlight series. Radio Bristol Spotlight highlights the top emerging artists in our region. Through interviews and performance, we will learn more about the musicians who help to make Central Appalachia one of the richest and most unique musical landscapes in the world.

Not too long ago we were able to host a well-known local fixture of the Tri-Cities music scene for an interview and live performance: Ed Snodderly, singer-songwriter, professor, venue owner, and live music devotee.

Black-and-white photograph of Ed Snodderly. He is an older white man who wears glasses, a white button-down shirt, and a jean jacket. He is looking up and off to his right. His hair is quite messy and fluffy.
Ed Snodderly is country music outside the box.  Photo credit by Selena Harmon

Folks around the area most likely have heard about The Down Home, the long-running music venue Ed helped found with Joe “Tank” Leach in 1976. The wooden-walled, listening room-focused locale has become legendary for the quality of its musical acts and for the intimacy of the performance space. Famed for hosting major artists such as Old Crow Medicine Show, Townes Van Zandt, and Allison Krauss way before their music became a part of the growing Americana music canon, The Down Home has provided a communal space for experiencing music with a profound dedication to artistry.

Maybe you also recognize Ed’s face from his cameo performance as the “Hillbilly Fiddler” in the movie O Brother Where Art Thou. You may also have seen him running sound during an Open Hoot, or even performing in local community theatre.

If you hang around Johnson City, you may have also caught Ed walking across the ETSU campus, where he teaches songwriting. He is adept at encouraging first-time writers to hotwire their minds and put up their “antennas” to find where an attention-grabbing first line might be hiding in the everyday. This is how I first met Ed via a workshop hosted by the Birthplace of Country Music. His approach to making songs has really influenced me – a lot of his focus hones in on connecting experience to place and allowing the writer to explore “what they know” instead of relying on popular musical tropes.

Ed may wear many hats, but he is first and foremost an amazing songwriter. Indeed, his name is etched beside lyrics from his song “The Diamond Stream” on the walls of the Country Music Hall of Fame. He has released several albums as a solo musician and with his singing partner Eugene Wolf in their duo The Brother Boys, and and currently has new albums in the works in both of these roles, due out later this year and early spring of next year.

Inspired by the extra time during the pandemic, Ed talked to us about the considerable amount of new material he’s written recently, shared a few of his well-crafted songs, and also spoke about his musical journey. Donning a hip pair of rimmed glasses and a country boy swagger, Ed welcomed us into his musical landscape with an endearing East Tennessee drawl. He started off with a nostalgic tune, called “Kiss the Dream Girl,” which recounts a downtown that was once bustling. A steady rhythmic guitar line walks through the verses like someone strolling down an empty street; the “dream girl” acts as a metaphor for those still remembering in the lost spirit of a small town. This song was featured on the Brother Boys record Plow released by Sugar Hill Records in 2006, and you can listen to a recording of it here:

Growing up in the Morristown area near Knoxville, Tennessee, Ed was taught basic chords on an unbranded guitar bought by his father and uncle with money scrounged from farming tobacco. He was encouraged at an early age by his musical family – his grandfather was a fiddler, and his uncle played pedal steel professionally for big-time artists such as Loretta Lynn and Jerry Lee Lewis. With that background, Ed became fascinated with music. He also liked to learn songs by ear, slowing down 33 1/3 records while figuring out how to play the songs himself, and he reveled in the folk music revival that was gaining ground during his childhood. Ed says he’s drawn influence from a wide variety of artists, including Riley Puckett, Guy Clark, and The Beatles – from these, he has pieced together a guitar style that feels extremely unique and captivatingly organic. Part old-timey fingerpicking and part contemporary folk songwriter groove, his guitar licks seem to always be pushing songs rhythmically towards their destination. Ed’s style is both reverent to tradition, while also being totally unafraid to shift itself into another genre, all masterfully cobbled together to best serve the song at hand.

After his first number, Ed shared another original called, “Slow My Girl Around.” which felt like it could be inspired by an old fiddle tune, possibly “Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss.” Its lilting melody hops around his distinctive guitar playing, which guides each note towards the chorus. The lyrics again were tinged with nostalgia, but this time explored modernity’s dependence on technology. Lines like “Your eyes are addicted to the little box screen” and “Where all is quiet and there’s no hum, trying to get back to what we got away from” make it clear that the songwriter is searching for a more genuine existence, unfettered by the mechanics of contemporary life. When asked about his songwriting, Ed replied simply “I write about what I know; I always try to remember what the country smells like.” His dedication to straightforwardly writing about experiences while poetically uncovering personal truths leads to songs that are as thought-provoking as they are familiar and that use easy going off-the-cuff language to describe ego-splitting revelations.  

The third song Ed played during his on-air performance – “Love Song in a Low Key” – felt like an expressive anthem to the present moment. The song features driving guitar accompaniment paired with recollections of everyday experiences that effortlessly create joy: pocket watches, a good cup of coffee, the feel of a steering wheel, the sense of “being home and being here.” This song displays stylistic influences from pop and rock music of the 1960s, while still imparting folk-inspired wisdom, and pulls in the listener with a sing-song talking blues-like cadence. Similar to the first two songs, Ed used the subject of romance to talk about larger truths; his approach to utilizing love as a metaphor allows these songs to seem both personal and expansive.     

Ed Snodderly is many things to many people, but his interview made it clear that most of all he is an absolute devotee to live music, valuing the magic of performance, the art of songwriting, and holding reverence for person-to-person interaction. This passion is what led Ed to open The Down Home, and it is the subject of the last song he played for us. Also titled after the music venue, the song comes from 2017’s Record Shop and chronicles the rarity of a creative space like The Down Home, which according to the song is “enough to make you feel every kind of feeling.” Check out Ed’s inspiring live performance in the video below, and keep your eyes peeled for new music from Ed Snodderly and The Brother Boys.

Ella Patrick is a Production Assistant at Radio Bristol. She also hosts Folk Yeah! on Radio Bristol and is a performing musician as Momma Molasses.

Radio Bristol Book Club: Hear My Sad Story: The True Tales That Inspired “Stagolee,” “John Henry,” and Other Traditional American Folk Songs

Welcome to Radio Bristol Book Club where readers from BCM and the Bristol Public Library come together each month to celebrate and explore books inspired by our region’s rich Appalachian cultural and musical heritage! We invite you to read along and then listen to Radio Bristol on the fourth Thursday of each month at 12:00 noon when we dig deep into the themes and questions raised by the books, learn more about the authors, and celebrate the joys of being a bookworm!

The November book club book is Hear My Sad Story: The True Tales That Inspired “Stagolee,” “John Henry,” and Other Traditional American Folk Songs by historian and author Richard Polenberg. In this book, Polenberg lays out the real historical events that led to the creation of many famous folk songs. The songs in the book are ballads – narrative songs that focus primarily on an individual but also groups, events, or institutions. In this case, they mostly took place in North Carolina, West Virginia, and Missouri though other states appear in the book, including Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia, Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

Folk songs have many versions, and Polenberg follows that history by examining various versions of the songs in this book. Over time, verses may have been dropped, added, or modified in some way to better suit the musician or audience. However, even though the songs – and sometimes even the melody – have changed, their fundamental message did not. This core message and the circumstances surrounding the song’s creation are where Polenberg has chosen to focus. He dives right to the root of each song and unveils the real events and surrounding social issues that inspired such entrancing music.

The cover of Hear My Sad Story has a painting of various scenes from the songs featured in the book in its top half. These include a man with a knife standing over a woman on the ground in front of him; an old house on a hill; a tree with a flowering bush behind it; a winding road; and three musicians - a harmonica player, a fiddler, and possibly a jug player (or drinker) sitting at a table, playing their instruments. The title and author are below the cover illustration.

As a professor of American history at Cornell University for 45 years, Polenberg taught a generation of students. He was distinguished with several teaching awards throughout his career and was recognized as one of the most popular professors on campus. He also published many books that helped draw attention to often obscure corners of America’s political and legal development. He received awards and praise for several of his books, including Fighting Faiths: The Abrams Case, the Supreme Court, and Free Speech (1987), which won the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award. Several of his other books, such as The Era of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933–1945 (2000), War and Society: The United States, 1941–1945 (1972), and One Nation Divisible: Class, Race, and Ethnicity in the United States since 1938 (1980) are often used in college classrooms.

After his retirement, Polenberg spent more time on his passion for blues and folk music, eventually publishing Hear My Sad Story, his final book. Hear My Sad Story combined his interest in music with his extensive knowledge of the American legal system in the 19th and 20th centuries. The songs are all carefully chosen to reflect the social history of the times in which they were originally written. 

In this image, an older white man with white hair stands in a lecture theater near a podium. He is wearing a grey suit jacket, a royal blue shirt, and a colorful tie; he also wears glasses.
Richard Polenberg at the end of his final lecture at Cornell.
Cornell University File Photo

Hear My Sad Story is organized by key themes within the music – St. Louis, lying cold on the ground, bold highwaymen and outlaws, railroads, workers, disasters, and martyrs – and is a delightful example of how music can be a window into history. Many of the individuals in these tales find themselves in legal trouble – sometimes they deserved it, sometimes the system failed to work for them because they were poor, women, African American, or immigrants. 

Though the lyrics may be romanticized or exaggerated, the true tales behind these classic songs all stem from tragic truths. Truths that often involve murder, love affairs gone wrong, desperate acts born out of poverty or unbearable working conditions, natural disasters, and calamities such as shipwrecks and railroad crashes. These ballads contain the stories of real people who experienced fear, love, loss, and hope. The songs that were born from their stories will help to ensure they are never forgotten. 

Please make plans to join us on Thursday, November 18 at 12:00pm for the discussion of Hear My Sad Story: The True Tales That Inspired “Stagolee,” “John Henry,” and Other Traditional American Folk Songs by Richard Polenberg. You can find us on the dial at 100.1 FM, streaming live on Radio Bristol, or via the Radio Bristol app. The book is available at the Bristol Public Library, so be sure to pick up a copy and read it ahead of time. The librarians will be happy to help you find the book. We look forward to exploring this book on-air, and if you have thoughts or questions about the book that you would like to share with our readers, you can email info@birthplaceofcountrymusic.org (Subject line: Radio Bristol Book Club) – your book insights might appear on air with us!

Looking ahead: Our book pick for December is Songteller: My Life in Lyrics by Dolly Parton w/ Robert K. Oermann; we’ll be discussing it on Thursday, December 23. Check out our full list of 2022 Radio Bristol Book Club picks here, where you can also listen to archived shows!

* Erika Barker is the Curatorial Manager at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.