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Bristol Rhythm: Celebrating 20 Years in 2020

Nearly 20 years ago, City of Bristol Tennessee Councilman David Shumaker had an idea to host a music festival in Historic Downtown Bristol. Bristol had recently been named the official “birthplace of country music” by the U.S. Congress in 1998, and Shumaker thought a great way to celebrate our legacy was to develop a music festival. He began talking to the City of Bristol’s Community Relations Director Terrie Talbert, and with a lot of hard work, a community call out for volunteers, and months of planning, the first Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion was held in October 2001.

Since then, the festival has grown from 7,500 to over 40,000 attendees each year. In addition, the festival hosts 120 bands on 16 stages throughout the three-day weekend in September. Bristol Rhythm has earned many accolades, including being named as one of Rolling Stone’s “Top 20 Tours and Festivals.”

This year, we are taking a look back at the festival with a fun docuseries called Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion: Celebrating 20 Years in 2020.  Our marketing team has been working with Loch & Key Productions to pull together the interviews, old video footage, and photographs to make this film series possible.

Three photos: 
Top: Jim Lauderdale being interviewed in the museum's Immersion Theater for the docu-film.
Center: Executive Director Leah Ross being interviewed in the museum's Performance Theater for the docu-film.
Bottom: A close-up of the "director's chair" bearing the Birthplace of Country Music logo during filming for the docuseries.

The docuseries includes four episodes, and the first episode focuses on how the festival began all those years ago. You can check out Episode 1 below:

Click on Play Button to View Video

We will share the other three episodes in the coming months, available via our YouTube Channel.

We would love to know if you attended during the first few years of Bristol Rhythm, and if so, please share some of your favorite memories with us! 

That’s a Wrap, Bristol Rhythm ’19

Thank you, Fans!

The energy at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion is unlike any other experience in the world. Seriously, it’s a beautiful thing. For every single person who contributed to the fantasticalness (yes, I just made that word up) of that awesome weekend, we owe a sincere and loving “thank you.”

This dude. The embodiment of festival spirit.
© Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Wade Payne

I love standing in the middle of the crowd at the festival and catching a stranger’s eye when a set is really starting to heat up. In that moment, whatever may separate you from that person in real life, everything but the music and your oneness with that energy completely disappears. The connection is instant, electric, and binding. Bristol Rhythm is filled with those moments. If we could harness that level of bliss and positivity, I’m convinced we could change the world.

With that, I want to share with you our Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion 2019 festival re-cap video, produced by Loch & Key Productions. They did a stellar job (once again) of capturing that positive spirit and the joy of our event with amazing music and visuals. We look forward to reclaiming the energy next year, one week earlier than usual! Mark your calendars for 10 days of Rhythm & Racing 2020 September 10–19 and pick up that Super Ticket! For $150 you’ll get to enjoy all the music at Bristol Rhythm (September 11–13), all three days of racing at the world’s fastest half-mile, Bristol Motor Speedway (September 17–19), and all the surrounding events happening over 10 days in the Tri-Cities!

In the meantime, keep supporting live music and buying music and merch from the artists you love!

Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion 2019 re-cap video.

Going Green at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion

Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion is not only a festival filled with great music, good friends, tasty food, fun events and activities, and unique shopping opportunities from downtown merchants and vendors – it is also a festival that is working hard to be green!

The environment is one of the top concerns and issues for many people around the world, and Bristol Rhythm is always looking for ways to protect our downtown environment and do our part to minimize the effect we are having on Mother Earth. But unlike most music festivals, being green is a bit more of a challenge for us since we host our event in a downtown filled with shops, businesses, residents, restaurants, and bars. Being in the middle of a field – like FloydFest, MerleFest, or Bonnaroo, for instance – gives festival organizers a bit more control over their green environment!

Still, since our festival’s Green Team first came together several years ago, we’ve accomplished a lot on the green front, including huge recycling efforts, implementing various green initiatives, and taking part in green advocacy and education opportunities within the community. Here are just a few – along with ways that you can be a GREEN HERO with us!

Meet the Green Team!

First things first – you need to get to know our very own hometown green heroes, the Bristol Rhythm Green Team! The Green Team Committee, made up of dedicated and passionate volunteers, meets every month before Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion to discuss and plan the green initiatives we want to introduce to the event. We also join in a variety of advocacy events throughout the year such as Sustain Abingdon’s Earth Day event and Keep Bristol Beautiful’s clean-up days, and we share expertise and resources with others in our community and downtown who want to be greener.

At the festival, the Green Team committee members, along with a large volunteer corps, pick up recycling (paper, plastic, and aluminum) from the designated recycle stations throughout the festival weekend, help our vendors and merchants to recycle cardboard and dispose of cooking oil and waste water responsibly, and set out a variety of green guidelines for the festival food and craft vendors, such as using compostable food storage and flatware, supplying recyclable drinkware, and using recyclable plastic bags or paper bags.

We are lucky to have such a great – and fun – committee, and we are really grateful to all the volunteers who sign up to join us on the Bristol Rhythm Green Team each year. We set ourselves apart from the other festival volunteers with our quirky volunteer t-shirts, supported and printed by KS Promotions. Each year we get festivalgoers asking us where they can buy one of our cool shirts – the only way to get one is to volunteer with us; we still have shifts available for Bristol Rhythm 2019 so go online and join us!

Left and right: Green Team volunteers at festivals past posing with their unique volunteer t-shirts. Center: Green Team committee members helping a young girl make a craft out of small plastic bottles.
Green Team committee members and volunteers at the festival (left and right) – with different shirts over the years – and helping kids make “recycled crafts” at a Birthplace of Country Music Museum Family Fun Day. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler (center)

REDUCE and REUSE: Reusable stainless steel cups in the draft beer gardens!

This year, instead of plastic cups in the Bristol Rhythm beer gardens, you will need to purchase a stainless steel cup to use during the festival – these cups are only $5! And then don’t forget to hold onto this cup and then reuse it for all your beer garden drinks throughout the festival weekend. We’ll provide a rinsing station at each draft beer garden so you can swill out your cup if needed, but remember not to use too much water! This year we will only allow use of our stainless steel cups in the festival beer gardens, but we plan to open up to festivarians using stainless cups from other festivals in the future.

It is common these days for music festivals and other community events to only offer reusable cups where they sell beverages (check out Bonnaroo’s sustainability efforts – an inspiration!), and this new initiative will cut down considerably on BRRR’s plastic waste, especially important as plastic recycling gets more and more difficult. Even better: the cups are a great collectible souvenir! We are grateful to Keen Promotions for their support of this new initiative.

The stainless steel cup with the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion logo in orange on its front.
The Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion 2019 reusable cup! © Birthplace of Country Music

REDUCE and REUSE: Water refill stations!

Last year, with the help of Bank of Marion and the City of Bristol, Tennessee, we added two water stations to the event footprint where festivalgoers can fill reusable water bottles – or your new stainless steel BRRR cup this year! These water refill stations present another great opportunity to reduce the number of plastic water bottles sold over festival weekend. The stations can be found near the corner of 5th and State Streets, and near the Country Music Mural Stage.

A festivalgoer filling up her bottle at a water refilling station.
One of the water filling stations at BRRR 2018. It proved very popular with festivalgoers, being constantly used and leading to a lot of positive feedback. © Birthplace of Country Music

REUSE: Tote bags!

I have a million tote bags (no exaggeration!), and I love every single one of them. I use them all the time – for my grocery and other shopping; for extra packing bags when on a trip; for carrying snacks on car journeys, or just to the office (I ALWAYS need snacks!); for storage; as a way to wrap birthday and Christmas presents; and as a substitute handbag. Plastic bags are everywhere, and they are a HUGE environmental problem globally. So do your part, and bring your own reusable bags to carry home all your festival treasures and bargains. A folded-up bag in your pocket, purse, or backpack takes up no room and adds no weight – just do it!

The metal statue of Dale, always on display at festival, wearing a Green Team canvas tote bag with one of the t-shirt designs about being a green hero.
The festival’s unofficial mascot “Dale” carrying a Green Team-themed canvas tote bag. © Birthplace of Country Music

RECYCLE: Know what you can recycle and do so responsibly!

I’ve recycled for years, often getting the actual trash pick-up at my home down to half a trash bag or less each week. And over the years of the festival, the Green Team has literally recycled TONS of plastic, paper, cardboard, glass, and aluminum. However, there have been a lot of stories in the local and national news lately about the many challenges to recycling – especially what is and is not recyclable on the plastic front – and we’ve certainly seen the effects of those issues here in the Tri-Cities.

Every year, the Green Team picks up cardboard from the downtown merchants and the food and craft vendors for recycling. And we also set out labeled recycle stations for paper, aluminum, and plastic throughout the Bristol Rhythm footprint for festivalgoers. This year, unfortunately, only plastic types #1 and #2 can be recycled so please look out for these symbols before placing a plastic item in one of our stations – the numbers can usually be found on the bottom of the item. Any contamination by other plastic type numbers will mean ALL the plastic goes straight to the landfill instead – and we definitely want to avoid that!

Left: Two Green Team volunteers taking a selfie in front of a large pile of festival recycling on the back of a golf cart. Right: The 7 triangular recycle symbols found on plastics.
Green Team volunteers ready to transport a huge pile of recycling, and the usual plastics recycling numbers. © Birthplace of Country Music (left)

Plastic Island!

This year the festival’s Atmosphere Committee is adding one more thing to all of the art, signage, and décor that they create each year to make Bristol Rhythm extra special – and beautiful! This side project is called Plastic Island, a reused materials art piece that will be on display in the old fountain basin in front of WCYB (the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard side of the building) and which is meant to help raise awareness about environmental challenges and the green cause. Using discarded plastic – both unrecyclable and recyclable – the committee is creating a whole host of sea creatures, island features, ocean waves, and more to highlight the danger of plastics in our oceans – inspired, if that is the right word, by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Sadly, the plastic they collected is just the tip of the iceberg, which barely reflects the amount of plastic produced and used globally. Be sure and check out Plastic Island when you are enjoying the festival and remember the damage done from thrown-out plastic as you find ways to reduce, reuse, and recycle in your own life!

The left and center photographs show some of the craft reused materials for Plastic Island, including fish, octupi, whales, plants, and more made out of plastic bottles and containers. The right image is of floating marine debris made of trash, plastics, fishing nets, and other items.
While the reused materials crafts for Plastic Island are cute and beautiful, remember that too many of these materials wind up in our oceans. © Birthplace of Country Music (left and center); NOAA


Not only is the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion Green Team supported by various businesses, but we also get a lot of in-kind support from our community partners – Revolution Curbside Recycling, Keep Bristol Beautiful, and Wise Recycling this year, several others over previous years. We couldn’t do the work we do each festival without that support and help. But most of all, we couldn’t be green at Bristol Rhythm without you – so be a GREEN HERO!

Setting the Stage for Bristol Rhythm: A Love Letter to Historic Downtown

Location, location, location! That’s one of the reasons Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion is one of the most fun and unique festivals on the planet. Historic Downtown Bristol, VA-TN is a gem, and Bristol Rhythm partially exists to showcase its charm. Downtown has undergone a complete transformation over the past decade or so, with tons of locally owned breweries, restaurants, shops, galleries, high-end loft spaces, and businesses moving in and creating a vibrant energy. Investors have lovingly restored so many aging and crumbling properties, and the success of our festival helps keep businesses thriving.

Bristol born and raised, I love my hometown. I am so proud of the fine progress made downtown, and I’m so grateful to business owners who open their doors to our festival. We want to see them all succeed, and its part of BCM’s mission to be of economic benefit to the region. They provide so much light and love to what we do, so I wanted to highlight a few of those businesses here through a virtual mini-tour of our stages and venues.

Careful thought goes into the placement of our Bristol Rhythm main stages so that hey highlight important landmarks and buildings. Some indoor stages are located in venues already equipped for live performance. One thing is for certain, every stage has its own magic and distinct atmosphere. Thank you, Bristol, for providing the perfect backdrop for everything we do!

1. State Street Stage

Photo of The Bristol Sign behind State Street Stage as seen from a distance.
State Street Stage in perspective.
© Birthplace of Country Music. Photo by Eli Johnson.

The State Street Stage, haloed by the luminescent 100-year-old Bristol Sign, was once located one block up on State Street – closer to the Paramount. As audiences grew, the stage was pushed back to accommodate more people. I love this view looking down a sea of people toward the sign. It’s also a great stage for photo opps!

2. Piedmont Stage

The Piedmont Stage beside the Bristol Public Library.
Saturday night at he Piedmont Stage.
© Birthplace of Country Music. Photo by Bill Foster.

The Piedmont Stage has also seen some transition over the years. It’s first location was in front of Burger Bar facing Stateline Bar & Grille. It was later pushed back to the corner of Goode and Piedmont. We think it has now found a final resting place! It’s located near our beloved Bristol Public Library, which underwent renovations in the 1990s. The beautiful metal sculpture archway on the corner was created for the library by internationally known fantasy artist Charles Vess, who has also designed three festival posters for Bristol Rhythm over the years.

3. Country Music Mural Stage

The Country Mural Stage and the famed mural from which it gets its name.
The Downtown Center during Bristol Rhythm.
© Birthplace of Country Music. Photo by Bill Foster.

For the most part, the Country Music Mural Stage is dedicated to bluegrass and traditional country music. The City of Bristol, Tennessee built a stage in front of the Country Music Mural many years ago to house live music year-round. For the first few years, we utilized that stage at Bristol Rhythm. The photo opportunities were great, but the bands weren’t elevated enough to give fans a good view, and it was difficult to load equipment in and out through the crowds. The solution of an added stage here also gives festival goers more shaded seating on the original stage, plus there’s better access for the artists and sound techs with the new stage. Designed by Tim White, a local musician and producer/host of Song of the Mountains, the Country Music Mural is an important landmark in Historic Downtown Bristol.

4. Cumberland Square Park Stage

Cumberland Square Park Stage at night, haloed by twinkle lights.
Twinkle lights over Cumberland Square Park stage.
© Birthplace of Country Music.

Nothing beats an evening set of music at Cumberland Square Park! The City of Bristol, Virginia constructed this massive permanent stage for live music events year-round, and we love it! Families attending the festival flock to this stage for the shade it provides, and it isn’t unusual to see someone tying up a hammock between the trees! The park also serves as a memorial to our service men and women. The impressive sculptures depicting each branch of our Armed Forces and an eternal flame stand proudly below a genuine AH-1 Cobra helicopter that once flew in Vietnam.

5. The Paramount Stage

The majestic Paramount Stage.
The Paramount during Radio Bristol’s Farm & Fun Time.
© Birthplace of Country Music. Photo by Billie Wheeler.

Paramount Bristol is the crown jewel of Historic Downtown. Originally opened in 1931, this gorgeous art deco gem went through some hard times in the late 1960s and 1970s as Bristol’s downtown fell into decline. Sadly, the theater closed its doors in 1979. It was saved by the nonprofit Paramount Foundation and reopened in 1991. Today it is a thriving performing arts center and a beautiful venue for live music! We are so fortunate to have such an amazing venue during Bristol Rhythm; it’s the ultimate listening room experience!

6. The Cameo Theatre

The Ruen Brothers performing on The Cameo Theatre Stage.
The Ruen Brothers set at The Cameo, 2019.
© Birthplace of Country Music. Photo by Amy Shumaker.

The Cameo is back! Established as a vaudeville theater in 1925, The Cameo Theatre ranks among the 15 oldest in the state of Virginia. A long-awaited restoration of this 550-seat beauty has been made by owner Brent Buchanan, and he plans to host a mix of live entertainment and films. The sound in this space for live music is lush, and it has an amazing balcony space for taking in shows. Not a bad seat in the house!

7. Near Moore Stage

Sally & George perform for crowd at the Near Moor Stage.
Sally & George on the Near Moore Stage Bristol Rhythm 2017.
© Birthplace of Country Music. Photo by Sarah Mast.

Hidden in a small parking lot between two buildings, the Near Moore Stage is named such because, well, it’s near Moore Street! Cozy, with just the right amount of shade and ambiance, it is formerly known as the Eatz on Moore Street Stage because it was once located on the tiny street in front of Eatz on Moore Street restaurant. Hands-down the best soul food in the Tri-Cities, I highly recommend Mark and Lisa Canty’s barbecue or catfish plated with collards, mac’n’cheese, and sweet cornbread – and don’t forget their homemade banana pudding! You can grab it to go and picnic at the stage or enjoy the music from an outdoor table top at Eatz. There is nothing quite like Near Moore at twilight!

8. 6th Street Stage

The 6th Street Stage during a popular set.
The 6th Street Stage.
© Birthplace of Country Music. Photo by Bill Foster.

The 6th Street Stage is among the newest at Bristol Rhythm, located on the “Tennessee side” on the narrow, one-way street for which it is named. Located near Mountain Empire Comics and Top Hat Magic, this is what I like to call the “anything goes” stage – meaning any type of band could be playing on this stage at any time. Stadium seating has been added, and Lisa Martin’s Bank Street café provides a lovely beverage garden stage-side. Her chicken salad croissants and crab cakes are also amazing! Sinful Chicago-style deep dish pizza is served across the way at The Angry Italian by Certified Executive Chef Keith Yonker; we recommend calling it in early as prep time takes around 45 minutes. Worth the wait!

9. 7th Street Stage/Dance Tent

7th Street Stage/Dance Tent at night shows off the Bristol logo projected on the ceiling of tent.
The “light show” under the 7th Street Tent.
© Birthplace of Country Music. Photo by Sarah Mast.

Also a newer stage, the 7th Street Stage has morphed quite a bit over the past few years. We’ve now merged it with the Dance Tent to create a fun atmosphere where bands and fans are protected from the elements while they groove. Its located beside the century-old L.C. King Manufacturing Co., family-owned in Bristol for four generations. We highly recommend browsing the racks for some authentic Pointer Brand clothing. It’s become the unofficial outfitter of festival musicians, as they flock to its showroom every year in search of cool duds.

10. O’Mainnin’s Pub & Grill

A relaxing set at O'Mainnin's back patio stage.
The cozy back patio at O’Mainnin’s. Raccoon sightings happen here!
© Birthplace of Country Music. Photo by Bill Foster.

Out back at O’Mainnin’s Pub & Grill you’ll find a little creek side oasis complete with Tiki hut and an eclectic mix of music. I love the dive-bar vibe at O’Mainnin’s – and I mean that as a high compliment! It’s the after-hours hangout for local restaurant industry folk and night-cappers, and owner Dave Manning and his staff are some of the finest people you’ll ever meet. Bonus: they have a jukebox!

11. Machiavelli’s Outdoor Tent

Annabelle's Curse during a night time performance under the Machiavelli's Outdoor Tent.
Annabelle’s Curse, Bristol Rhythm ’18.
© Birthplace of Country Music. Photo by Billie Wheeler.

The Machiavelli’s Outdoor Tent is an extension of the 5th Street restaurant of the same name. This tent is always hoppin’ and it’s just steps away from the Paramount, Theatre Bristol, and State Street Stages. I call it the “distraction” stage because I always get sucked in to whatever amazing performance is going on there when passing by. Fun fact: the first year St. Paul & the Broken Bones played the festival, they performed under this tent.

12. Machiavelli’s Indoors

An enthusiastic crowd, Machiavelli's Indoor Stage.
Machiavelli’s Indoors.
© Birthplace of Country Music. Photo by Evan McGurrin.

In addition to the outdoor tent, Machiavelli’s hosts an intimate indoor stage. Amazing restaurant owners Dave and Val Jun, along with their kind staff, man the taps and fire the tastiest brick oven pizzas ever! Our offices are right across the street and we can’t resist the Italian nachos! Sometimes we ask for Italian nacho toppings on a pizza – SO. GOOD! – and we’re big fans of the Margherita pizza and Mediterranean pasta. Machiavelli’s is one of those places that makes you feel right at home. So grateful for good neighbors!

13. Theatre Bristol

A packed house for Sally & George, Theatre Bristol.
Another Sally & George performance, Bristol Rhythm 2017.
© Birthplace of Country Music. Photo by Bill Foster.

Theatre Bristol has been an institution in our community since 1965 when it was established as a children’s theater. The intimate space seats 100 people, perfect for an intimate performance, and larger performances are often moved to the Paramount next door. Generations of Bristolians have grown up with Theatre Bristol, and Theatre Bristol continues to educate children in the wonders of live theater year-round. This space has been witness to hundreds of great performances over the years; it’s very dear to our hearts!

14. Stateline Bar & Grille

The crowd at Stateline enjoying tunes by Logan Fritz.
Logan Fritz, Bristol Rhythm ’18.
© Birthplace of Country Music. Photo by Adam Martin.

Stateline Bar & Grille has been an anchor to State Street since 2002. The building’s restoration was among the first restaurant projects happening on State Street during a pivotal time of investment, and owners Annette Estes and Amy Booher helped set the bar high for other restaurateurs coming in with their business acumen and work ethic. It’s a terrific place to sit down and enjoy a great meal while taking in live music during the festival! The woodwork inside is craftsmanship at its finest. The gorgeous bar, mirrors and all, were purchased by Fred Bartlett for his Rockefeller’s Oyster Bar at this location in the 1990s. He bought it from a downtown bank that was closing. Workers literally rolled the bar down State Street from its former location.

15. Borderline Billiards

A full house at Borderline Billiards.
From the archives! If Birds Could Fly, Bristol Rhythm ’13 at Borderline.
© Birthplace of Country Music. Photo by Brandon Reece.

Borderline Billiards is owned by WPBA billiards champion Janet Atwell, and lots of love has gone into this venue over the years. On regular business days, the pool tables are open to friendly competition, but during the festival they are covered so patrons can enjoy the music. For the past couple of years, Borderline has run a beverage garden behind the building and beside the 7th Street Stage/Dance Tent. A classy alternative to the stereotypical “pool hall,” Borderline is a family establishment with 9′ Brunswick Gold Crown tables where one can order from the menu, throw darts, or play ping pong. A fantastic and fun addition to Downtown Bristol!

16. Quaker Steak & Lube

Band performs under Corvette mounted on ceiling at Quaker Steak.
Daniel Miller performs at Quaker Steak & Lube, Bristol Rhythm ’18.
© Birthplace of Country Music. Photo by Bill Foster.

Yes. That is a Corvette mounted to the ceiling above the band. Quaker Steak & Lube is one of the few chain restaurants located downtown, and this franchise is owned by locals Jeff Tickle, Blair Jones, and J. J. Gillenwater of the Bristol-based real estate investment firm The Albatross Group. The automotive-inspired theme restaurant offers a decor of vintage cars and garage memorabilia, and hosts bike nights throughout the year. The hot wings are their specialty, fuel to get you revved up between or during sets.

17. Studio Brew

Audience upstairs at Studio Brew listening to Wise Old River.
Wise Old River performs to a packed house upstairs at Studio Brew,
Bristol Rhythm 2017.
© Birthplace of Country Music. Photo by Sarah Mast.

Only a smidgen off the beaten path, but well worth a brisk walk past Cumberland Square Park, Master Brewer Erich Allen’s Studio Brew was among the first craft breweries to locate downtown, opening the tap for a wave of others to follow. Artisans of the trade, Studio Brew renovated a historic train freight warehouse built in 1909 on Moore Street where they brew, bottle, seal, and ship their recipes. Studio Brew has expanded distribution throughout Tennessee, Virginia, and soon into South Carolina. Their tapas and brew pairings are only matched by the classy, but warm, establishment where you can peer into the brewing room while sampling a flight of robust and tasty recipes.

18. Shanghai Stage

Chris Jamison performs at Shanghai Stage.
Chris Jamison at Shanghai Stage, Bristol Rhythm ’17.
© Birthplace of Country Music. Photo by M. Taylor,
King University Dept. of Digital Media Art & Design.

Shanghai Chinese Restaurant has been family owned and operated by Xian Chen and his wife Ying since 1996. The Chens and their three young children have worked hard to create the friendliest space possible for their yummy dishes, and through the years Shanghai has been voted the best Chinese restaurant in Bristol. An expansion was made in recent years to accommodate their loyal and new customers, and we highly recommend the buffet! You’ll find it a calming atmosphere to take in an acoustic act or singer-songwriter while noshing on dumplings and rice during Bristol Rhythm.

19. Bloom Café & Listening Room

Andrew Alli performs at Bloom Cafe & Listening Room.
Andrew Allie performs at Bloom BR18, its first year as a festival stage.
© Birthplace of Country Music. Photo by Adam Martin.

The newest addition to our little downtown family, Bloom Cafe & Listening Room is a cozy coffee shop where live music and art converge amongst vintage furnishings and espresso-based drinks. Open seven days a week, Bloom hosts fun trivia nights and offers the community a chill place to meet up with friends or write the great American novel. I highly recommend stopping here for breakfast!

20. Birthplace of Country Music Museum

The Performance Theater at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.
The 100-seat Performance Theater at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.
© Birthplace of Country Music

Though technically not a stage at Bristol Rhythm, the “acoustically perfect” Performance Theater at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum hosts a number of Radio Bristol Sessions the community can attend without a festival ticket. These programs are broadcast live on the air in the Bristol area at 100.1 FM and online at ListenRadioBristol.org. Lineups for these pop-up programs are announced closer to festy; be sure and watch social media for updates! The Indigo Girls performed a Session when they performed in 2017! With only 100 seats available, you’ll want to line up early for these intimate shows!

Bristol Rhythm Survival Guide

As the school year winds down and we head into the longer and hotter days of summer, it’s time to start thinking about festivals – Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, of course, and all the other festivals on your lineup.

Photo of busy State Street in Historic Downtown Bristol, VA-TN -- filled with festivalgoers, vendor tents, and with the State Street sign in the background.
State Street in Historic Downtown Bristol, VA-TN
in full-on festy mode!
© Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Bill Foster

Every year when festival season hits, you see them: festivalgoers who should have known better. Don’t be “that guy.” Or girl. In order to have an amazing festival experience, one must be prepared. To be in it for the long haul, you gotta prep, conserve your energy, and map out a plan loose enough to let you be spontaneous. Enthusiasts who travel to a lot of music festivals may have this down-pat, but we figure the casual festivalgoer may need a primer. Whether you’re traveling alone, with family, or with your crew, we think these tips will help prepare you for a long and festive weekend of great music and merriment when you come to Bristol Rhythm in September!

Photo of a hand holding a smartphone with the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion mobile app.
The Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion at your fingertips!
© Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Bill Foster
  • Download the Bristol Rhythm festival app.

The why is simple: research. Before the schedule is released, the entire lineup is available on the mobile app. Use this tool to read about the bands, listen to their music, and watch their videos. There may be a number of bands you have never heard of, but would totally fall in love with if you took the time to check them out. If you wait until you get to the festival to hear what the buzz is about, you may miss out. FOMO is a thing! Once the festival’s over and everyone’s talking about those acts you didn’t get the chance to see, there’s no going back. Get the app here!

Photos of fun ladies in cute outfits with sensible shoes.
These ladies know it’s possible to be cute and have sensible
festy footwear! Just look at us! We’re fabulous!
© Birthplace of Country Music,
photographers: Cora Wagoner, E. Larson, and unknown
  • Purchase a good pair of walking shoes and break them in.

Girls, I know you look fierce in those fine festival frocks with your cowboys boots and strappy sandals. If you are among the few who can dance all night in heels and still keep going, I commend you! But most of you know you’re setting yourself up for misery or worse – bunions! Believe me, hardcore festivarians know that there is no judgment below the ankles. You can still slay in that fabulous sundress with a sensible pair of shoes. My personal choice of footwear? Keens. I lovingly refer to them as “mandals” because they seem kinda clunky, but they come in fun colors and have saved my feet at every festival for the past ten years. Don’t confine yourself to a chair, wear good shoes and dance like no one’s watching!

Photos of people carrying umbrellas at the festival to block the sun.
Made in the shade!
© Birthplace of Country Music; photographers: Bill Foster and Earl Neikirk
  • Wear sunscreen. That goes double for kids.

Luckily, Bristol Rhythm is an urban festival so there are a number of indoor venues or beverage tents to duck under if you need some shade. However, one good 45-minute set at the Piedmont Stage, and you’ve likely already gotten more sun than you had intended. Before you leave the house, go ahead and lather yourself up – kids especially! – then reapply occasionally throughout the day. You’ll thank yourself for it later!

Photos of the article's author and actor Dwayne Johnson, a.k.a. The Rock, both wearing fanny packs.
What do me and The Rock have in common? You guessed it.
Please forgive the fuzzy pic, it was the only one I could find.
© Birthplace of Country Music
Photo credit of The Rock unknown

  • Ditch the purse and don’t trust the pockets in your cargo shorts.

The items that are most often turned in to lost-and-found during Bristol Rhythm are keys, credit cards, sunglasses, and eyeglasses. These essentials aren’t secure in your pockets, and big purses just aren’t practical for a music festival. Last year I dusted off my old fanny pack – ahem, hip bag – from the 1980s, and it was the best decision I ever made. I felt so light! So free! I wasn’t constantly adjusting straps or digging into the depths of my purse! It was such a revelation that I talked our marketing director into ordering custom Bristol Rhythm-branded fanny packs for the festival this year. I can’t wait!

Festival goers holding water bottles.
Water bottles as fashion.
© Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: E. Larson
  • Stay hydrated.

I can’t stress this enough. Having a water bottle with you at all times during the day is the best way to keep from getting parched and sleepy. Saturday at Bristol Rhythm is a long day. If you feel your energy draining, ask yourself: When is the last time I drank a glass of water? If it’s been an hour or longer, you definitely need to drink up! That goes especially for kids! And last year, we introduced two water refill stations to the festival so that makes staying hydrated even easier. You can use the mobile app’s map function for their locations.

Photo of a smiling couple with one of them wearing a t-shirt that reads "Here for the Music," and a second photo of a hand holding a beer.
Let’s not forget why we’re here…
© Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: A. Shumaker
  • Drink responsibly.

If you’re like me and enjoy a tasty adult beverage every now and again, then by all means treat yourself! It’s a festival! Just know when to say when. Alcohol is dehydrating, so there’s that, and nobody likes a sloppy drunk. If you pace yourself, you won’t miss any good music, embarrass yourself or your friends, throw up on a stranger’s shoes, or get tossed out of the festival and end up in jail. You’ll have a better festival experience sans hangover!

A couple holding festival food and a shot of the line of food vendors on Lee Street.
Nourishment via Bristol Rhythm food court.
© Birthplace of Country Music
  • Don’t forget to eat!

I have worked many-a-festival, and it happens to me every year. I get so involved in working or getting to the next stage that I forget to eat. Do yourself a favor: carve out a specific time in your schedule to hit a restaurant or vendor, and then sit down and have a proper meal. Bring snacks if you need to, but at least take the time to nourish yourself with a hearty meal at least once each day of the event. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a marathon, not a sprint – and it will seriously help soak up any alcohol in your system.

Photo of crowded State Street at night.
The streets stay crowded day AND night!
© Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Eli Johnson
  • Use the side streets at peak festival times.

State Street gets pretty crowded, and it can be difficult to get through the crowds if you’re in a hurry. Consider alternate routes on Shelby Street and Farm & Fun Time Alley if you have to get from one end of State Street to another quickly.

Photo of smiling people inside a car.
Artists travel together, why shouldn’t friends?
© Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Bill Foster
  • Carpool or take the shuttle.

Every year we work hard to improve the efficiency of the shuttle system. Wait times have been seriously reduced, and the buses come with more regularity than in previous years. If you are from out of town, the shuttles are a great resource to get you to and from the festival grounds without worrying about where to park.

Photo of two Bristol police officers.
Bristol’s finest!
© Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: K. Thompson
  • It takes a village.

Kindness and courteousness are the most common traits you’ll find in people who attend Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion. We’re very proud to say that arrests, accidents, lost kids, disorderly behavior, etc. are extremely rare, but that doesn’t mean those things won’t happen. We pride ourselves on being a family event; we want everyone to feel happy and welcome and safe when they walk through those gates. Please take care of each other; look out for the very young, the elderly, the disabled, and anyone you feel may be in need of help. We have plenty of law enforcement and emergency services to turn to just in case.

Photo of The Ruen Brothers.
A magical moment with The Ruen Brothers
captured at The Paramount.
© Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

I don’t have words to properly express how much I love Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion. Every year I find new bands to fall in love with, reunite with old friends, and make new ones. I have watched the careers of so many musicians blossom over the years and get really excited for their success. Historic Downtown Bristol is simply magical during the event, so it’s important to me that everyone who walks through the gates has the festival experience of a lifetime! I hope these tips help enhance that experience for you, and that you have a blast!

Photo of Low Cut Connie performing on stage in front of a large crowd -- viewing the band from behind and looking out at the audience.
Low Cut Connie on the Cumberland Square Park Stage.
© Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Bill Foster

The 19th annual Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion music festival dates are September 20-22, 2019. For the complete lineup and ticket info, click here.

Love Live Local: Supporting Your Local Music Economy

Me, couching with my cat Mooch and diggin’ on Snapchat filters instead of seeing live music. Boo, me!

As we settle into the winter months, our cozy pjs become more and more appealing. The skies darken earlier, beckoning us to retreat to our homes where the warmth of comfort foods fill our bellies and the urge to snuggle into our couches with a blanket, a favorite TV show or a good book often overrides the decision to go out and see live music. I get it. I am also guilty. This time of year I welcome hibernation, especially after the busy holidays, but as the Birthplace of Country Music is in the midst of booking music for our annual Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion festival in September I want to encourage everyone to take part in their local music economy this winter. Our venues and bands need you.

Many local venues rely on door cover to pay artists to come and perform. When people stay home, some venues decide not to offer live music at all. This shuts down a source of income for artists, venues, and bar and wait staff who rely on tips to supplement their income. When you support live music in the Tri-Cities, especially this time of year, you’re supporting local businesses and artists – businesses where we discover talent for Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion. In turn, fans that support live music locally are also more likely to buy tickets to our nonprofit festival. It’s great for our local music economy, and we generate an enthusiasm for our music scene that drives visitors from outside the community as well.

Clockwise L to R: International touring artist Amythyst Kiah performing at Radio Bristol’s Farm & Fun Time at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, Toni Doman and K.T. Vandyke performing as Virginia West at Bloom Cafe & Music Room in Downtown Bristol, Annie Robinette making sweet noise on the Lumac Rooftop Bar at The Bristol Hotel. and Beth Snapp with her amazing band at The Down Home in Johnson City.

Several years ago, Bristol Rhythm was once criticized in a national publication for being “painfully regional” in our booking choices. Though most of the article was favorable, that single phrase still sticks in my craw. Those of us in the scene know just how much talent thrives in our midst. Most independent artists work just as hard as their more popular peers, and you may be surprised to learn how many musicians from this region tour nationally and internationally. Indie artists also don’t need big label support and a team of marketers and radio buyers on the payroll to be good—or even great—so when I look at our lineup each year and see the number of regional and local artists on the bill, my chest swells with pride. We have the unique opportunity at our festival to showcase the enormous talent that dwells here. It’s one of the things that makes Bristol Rhythm unique. We don’t want our lineup to look like everyone else’s. Trends come and go. It’s important to us that our festival remains true to our mission of promoting Bristol’s rich music heritage—that includes booking artists who are most influenced by that heritage—artists whom live, record, and perform right here in our area.

L to R: Annabelle’s Curse, Doyle Lawson, and Virginia Ground performing at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion 2018. Lawson, born in Kingsport, is a multi-award winning artists who has toured all over the world.

So, on behalf of all our local venue owners, bar and wait staff, and local musicians here in our region and beyond, I urge you to make room on your calendars to take in a show in your neighborhood this week, invite a few friends, and give back to the people who make it their job to entertain us and make us happy. Don’t just go see local bands, buy their music, rock their merch, and tell your friends about them. Love live local music by supporting it, especially now, when business is slow and they need you the most!

Here is an awesome Spotify playlist comprised of some of a few of Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion’s most killer local acts. Enjoy!

Bristol Rhythm Sounds of the Season: A Festivus for the Rest of Us!

Nothing brings people together like music and the holidays so, for those of us who are really missing the festival atmosphere of Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion and are looking for a way to extend that joyful noise into the Christmas season, we’ve got ya covered.

From rockin’ original cuts by Old 97’s, Scott Miller, and Deer Tick to Christmas standards bluegrass’d up by the Del McCoury Band, Ricky Skaggs, and Sam Bush, we’ve scoured the interwebz to compile for you some of the most awesome Christmas tuneage in the universe, guaranteed to fill your holidays with lots of Bristol Rhythm cheer.

So while you’re basting that turkey, trimming the tree, wrapping those gifts, or just sitting around enjoying a tasty seasonal beverage, make it a Bristol Rhythm holiday party with nearly four hours of Christmas music performed by an eclectic mix of stellar festival artists, all in one handy Spotify playlist—and have a very merry Bristol Rhythm Christmas!

Enjoy Bristol Rhythm Sounds of the Season: A Festivus Playlist for the rest of us!

“With A Little Help From My Friends…” at King University!

In order for the Birthplace of Country Music (BCM) to pass on the history and traditions of our region’s music heritage to future generations, it’s crucial that we engage our region’s youth in our educational and cultural programming in a variety of ways. One way we cultivate good Bristol vibes is through partnerships. A fine example is our creative relationship with the faculty and students of King University’s Department of Digital Media Art & Design (KingDMAD) at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion.

It really began in 2010 when we first reached out to Virginia Intermont College (VI). We were in desperate need of good event photography at Bristol Rhythm, and the school had a reputation for turning out fine photographers. It was a great partnership that lasted until the institution (sadly) closed its doors in 2014. Two of the college’s most beloved and talented professors, Neil Staples and Jay Phyfer, graciously organized a crew of former students to come back to shoot the festival after the school had closed. BCM continues to call on Neil, Jay, and many of those VI photog alumni when we need good photography at the festival and smaller events.

In 2012 the festival’s needs expanded to include more social media content, and a new curriculum at King University opened the door for us to work with their students. Chris Stewart was the innovative head of the department at that time. When he left to become Marketing Director at L. C. King Manufacturing Co., Joe Strickland took the reins, along with Lee Jones—both stellar educators and photographers in their own right.

Three student photographers pose and take photos of the photographer!
Just a few of the King University student photographers at work during Bristol Rhythm 2018. © King University DMAD; photographer: Joe Strickland

King DMAD students have had the opportunity to work with video production companies and marketing agencies during Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, and it’s a relationship that we hope will continue to flourish. But most of all, it’s our sincerest hope that all of the students we work with gain real-world experience that will help shape their future as they fall in love with our festival and with Bristol.

Written by rising senior Caleb Beverly, this DMAD blog post on the King University website gives a glimpse into the Bristol Rhythm experience from a student’s perspective:

Students Return to Bristol Rhythm and Roots Festival

King students returned to the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion festival this year. King DMAD students worked together with professors Joe Strickland and Lee Jones, producing over 15,000 photographs. The students were tasked with capturing images of specific bands and covering the festival atmosphere. Over the weekend, photographs from King volunteers were included in the official nightly recaps of the festival.

Left pic: Band member jumping in the air beside a piano on stage; center: a detail of some of the atmosphere decorations on display at the festival; right: a close-up showing a band member playing his guitar.
The King University student photographers worked hard to get some really striking and memorable shots of the festival. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographers: Faust Crapiz, Christina Thomas, and Brandon Reese

Students were grateful for the chance to get hands-on with event coverage. They appreciated the unique challenges of working with different conditions throughout each day. Covering the festival forces students to be resourceful and to apply what they have learned in the classroom in a professional work environment.

This year, professional video group Loch & Key Productions provided another great opportunity, allowing King students to work directly with the video team. Throughout the weekend, select students took shifts with Loch & Key, experiencing promotional video production firsthand. Andy Feliu, a co-owner of Loch & Key, said:

“We’re big believers that the best way to learn in our field is to get your hands dirty so we were excited to bring on a few King University students to join our team. With this being our fourth year covering the festival, we’ve got a solid grasp of the audience and what makes Bristol special. Compared to any other festival we cover, Rhythm & Roots has by far the most stages, has the most variety when it comes to the actual festival goer, and the lineup itself spans a broad range of musical genres. These elements, along with just a great atmosphere overall, make BRRR a perfect opportunity for students to learn about video production in the context of live performance and event coverage.”

A female student with a cameraman from Loch & Key.
A King University student works with Loch & Key. © King University DMAD; photographer: Joe Strickland

Kim Davis, Director of Marketing for the Birthplace of Country Music, had this to say of King students’ involvement:

“Working with King University’s Digital Media Art & Design program has been very important to Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, as the students are a vital part of the photography strategy. Each year the talent of the students and our partnership gets stronger, and working with King University is always a great experience. We are thankful for the students’ excitement and participation in the festival.”

Girls Rock at Bristol Rhythm ‘18

Though I choose to protect the identities of the severely misguided, I have been told – on more than one occasion – that female headliners don’t sell tickets (imagine me rolling my eyes so hard they nearly fall out of their sockets). Really?! I don’t think Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood or Queen Dolly would agree. Adele, Madonna, J-Lo, and Beyoncé may also have something to say about that.

People Magazine online article about Jennifer Lopez's Las Vegas ticket sales of $100 million showing headline and photo of J Lo on stage
BOOM! No need to ask J-Lo why she’s smiling.  From People Magazine. 

The gender gap in the music industry is widely known and bitterly criticized, and music festivals are now facing the same scrutiny. I recently ran across Book More Women on Twitter and Instagram. Book More Women takes lineup posters of big music festivals, digitally edits out all the bands that don’t have women in them, and re-posts the results to show what festivals look like without men. The results are pretty shocking. It’s so bad that some major festivals wouldn’t have a lineup at all if male acts were left out of the equation. According to Book More Women: “In 2017, only 26% of acts playing US music festivals featured at least 1 woman or non-binary musician.” Wow. Just. Wow.

I am proud to report that out of the 144 acts that performed at Bristol Rhythm 2018, 60% of them were bands led by women or acts that included female musicians. We’ve seen great success with headliners like Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, and The Indigo Girls in the past, and I personally hope to see more females of that stature in the upper tier of our lineup every year.

The Bristol Rhythm 2018 rack card showing all the female artists or bands with female members.
We gave ourselves the “Book More Women” treatment with Bristol Rhythm’s 2018 lineup, only including acts led by women or bands that included female musicians. © Birthplace of Country Music

In addition, Bristol Rhythm offered more diversity in the lineup this year than we have likely ever seen before – something I think our music committee should, and will, continue to work on. After all, there are scores of incredible artists out there – and we have 20 stages just waiting to be filled.

Five photographs of female artists on stage performing at Bristol Rhythm 2018.
Just a few of the amazing ladies who rocked Bristol Rhythm 2018! Seen here are Kia Warren of Revel in Dimes, Sierra Hull, Lilly Hiatt, Alison Russell of Birds of Chicago, and Tanya Trotter of The War & Treaty. First four photographs © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Earl Neikirk; last photograph courtesy of Charlene Baker

It’s sad to me that we live in a world where categories and labels seem to divide and define us. Good music is good music, no matter who’s making it. I often wonder, why do we feel the need to classify our music, ourselves and others? Music generally brings people together, right?

Philosophy aside, I’ve created a Spotify playlist of some of the amazing ladies who graced our stages at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion 2018. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!

Hillbilly Superstar: Owning the “H” Word

I’m just going to say it.

I loathe derogatory representations of people from the south in the media. Though not as prevalent today as it once was, I despise the backward caricatures made up to represent us. Insults like “hillbilly” and “redneck” really tick me off. And you can find all sorts of examples of this type of characterization in movies, television, and books – for instance, the Oscar-nominated Deliverance brought some of those stereotypes into play, such as through the main characters’ perceptions of the people they encountered towards the beginning of the movie.

Let me be clear that my stance is not a lesson in political correctness, and I’m not writing this out of anger or resentment. My purpose with this blog post is to encourage folks from this area not to let those derogatory images and statements define them or make them ashamed of where they are from. We’re pretty great, and we live in one of most beautiful places in the world – and we all need to be reminded of that sometimes.

And, or course, the term “hillbilly” has ties to the musical heritage of this region too. The connection comes from a story told about a recording made by producer Ralph Peer on January 15, 1925 when he worked for the OKeh record label. At this first recording session for a quartet made up of Joe Hopkins, Al Hopkins, Tony Alderman, and John Rector, Peer asked the quartet for the name of their band. Al Hopkins’ immortal words were: “Call us anything you want. We’re nothing but a bunch of hillbillies from North Carolina and Virginia anyway!” Peer instructed OKeh’s secretary to write Hill Billies in the ledger. While the event surrounding the naming of the band was somewhat circumstantial, and it could be argued that the naming was a throw-away jibe or a stereotypical afterthought, the genesis of the term “hillbilly” in music can be linked to this moment.

The people of Appalachia are bred from a long line of strong people who knew how to survive. Our ancestors did back-breaking work in the fields, in the mines, and in the home for generations. If they didn’t grow it, they didn’t eat. If they couldn’t sew, they had no warmth. If they couldn’t chop down a tree and build it, they had no shelter. And when times got really tough, as I imagine they often were, southerners turned to their faith, and to their family and friends, and took care of each other. If that’s what you call a hillbilly, then I’m proud to be one.

Black-and-white image of a woman pulling the oars on a barge in Appalachia.
This photo reminds me of my Granny, a God-fearing woman who raised seven children largely by herself. “No rest for the weary,” she’d always say. Amen, sister. Image from The Appalachian Photographs of Cecil Sharp, originated by the Country Dance and Song Society, with permission of the English Folk Dance and Song Society

With all that in mind and thinking about the rich culture, history, and beauty of this region, I’m embracing the word “hillbilly” and challenging y’all to embrace it, too. In fact, one of the reasons I love Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion so much is because it changed my perspective of who I was and where I was from in such a positive way that I’m compelled to share this story in hopes that it makes someone else look at life a little bit differently, just like it did with me.

Shame on me, but as a naive, self-conscious teenager in the 1980s, I resented the hillbilly stereotype so much that I wanted to be as far removed from it as possible and rejected practically everything from southern culture. All I wanted was to get out. After all, the 1980s were all about Dynasty, Reaganomics, BMWs, and big shoulder pads – really important stuff, right? The world outside glittered with bigger and (seemingly) better possibilities – especially exemplified by Robin Leach’s Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, the Instagram of the 1980s.

So I traveled, thinking I’d move to some big city and then my life could really begin. I went to New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Las Vegas – and I loved them all for a variety of reasons. But, of all the sparkly and wonderful things those places have to offer, there was nothing like coming home to the mountains of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.

Image of a grassy field and the mountains in the distance with the sun setting behind a hill.
Who can argue with the beauty of our region? © Charlene Baker

And then, of course, as I said before, Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion changed everything for me.

At some point in adulthood I became active in my community. I adapted the motto, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” I met a lot of like-minded folks who were working to rebuild our downtown and give Bristol back its identity. A city’s downtown is its very essence and defines a community. When people are proud of their communities, they are more likely to be engaged and work to make it a better place to live. One of my first connections to community-building came with Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, and this festival has given me, and so many others, a level of pride in this area that no shopping mall or chain restaurant could ever deliver.

Bristol Rhythm is also a microcosm of all the creativity, tradition, and skill that has been passed down to us over the generations. A walk down a street of vendors reveals the true artistry of our Appalachian friends and neighbors, evident in every square inch of a colorful, hand-sewn quilt and recognized in the smoothly sanded lines of an elegantly crafted instrument. And a meal in one of our downtown restaurants imparts the quintessential southern kitchen where friends and families come together for gatherings that feed the body and the soul.

Top left image shows a host of festivalgoers cheering near the Downtown Mural stage; top and bottom right images features artisan items from the festival vendors, including guitars and quilts; bottom left picture shows a view into the restaurant Eatz on Moore Street
Top left: Look at all these smiling, happy people! They’re at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion and they’re ECSTATIC! Pure magic! Top and bottom right, and bottom left: From artisan items to downtown restaurants like Eatz on Moore Street, there’s something for everyone amongst the vendors and merchants at Bristol Rhythm. All images © Birthplace of Country Music; top left and top right are by photographers Bill Foster and Kendra Dougherty

And then there’s the music. Even if bluegrass or old time isn’t your thing, one can’t help but marvel at the level of accomplishment and prowess involved in playing a traditional instrument well. You really must see it live to truly appreciate it. Some of the greatest musicians of all time studied hillbilly music in an effort to up their game. Don’t believe me? Stop by the Birthplace of Country Music Museum to learn more about the wider story and be sure to check out the Immersion Theater experience where you’ll hear artists talking about the influence of this music on their own. Or come to the festival this year and see Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, Doyle Lawson, Molly Tuttle, Sierra Hull – amazing instrumentalists with mind-blowing talent and dexterity beyond imagination. Troy Grady’s video of Molly Tuttle – only 25 and the first woman to win the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Guitar Player of the Year Award – highlights what that great music sounds and feels like. The influence of our Appalachian music heritage continues to inspire musicians like Molly all over the globe, and it’s a beautiful thing.

And I encourage you to really listen to southern lyricists like Ed Snodderly or Scott Miller, songwriters who continue to take the trials and tribulations of the southern experience and turn them into poignant novellas that resonate with both satire and sentiment. Their talents are truly a gift, and we have so many artists like these two at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion just waiting to be encountered by music lovers.

Okay, so maybe Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion won’t change negative southern stereotypes on a global scale, but it did change the way I saw myself and our region. I also feel strongly that it’s a good start to changing the way young people feel about their own Appalachian heritage if they are judging themselves and their communities based on an outsider’s view of this region.

I hope Bristol Rhythm serves as a source of pride and inspiration to them, as it does for me, so they will carry on the traditions that make our region truly unique and special. Further, my wish is for anyone reading this to feel empowered and inspired to believe in Bristol, or in their own hometowns, so that they make positive change happen where they live for a sustainable future – one that doesn’t rely on people from the outside coming in and homogenizing their neighborhoods.

So own it, claim it, shout it loud and be proud! Be the “Hillbilly Superstar” you were intended to be! After all, being unique means we are meant for the spotlight, otherwise everything awesome that we and our ancestors worked so hard for will eventually disappear. We can’t let that happen because, Bristol truly is a really, really good place to live. And being from Bristol – and celebrating Bristol at the festival each year – is awesome!

Photo of downtown Bristol with Bristol Sign in the distance.
Some days I take a break with a cup of coffee on the top of the steps behind the Bristol Public Library and check out the view. Our twin cities may be small, but they are mighty. Two states, one state of mind.