As communications manager for the Birthplace of Country Music, the biggest part of my job is to promote BCM, get media to cover our events and create content connected to our mission. I spend my days writing press releases, pitching story ideas to media outlets, and writing content for things like this blog, our newsletters and website, and social media. Twice a year, in August and September, I get the opportunity to publish my own stories in Voice Magazine for Women to highlight acts that will be performing at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion – that’s kinda-sorta how I wound up spending Sunday at Bristol Rhythm 2022 with Rosanne Cash.
This year marked the 95th anniversary of the 1927 Bristol Sessions. In order to help BCM capitalize on this important milestone in our region’s music history, we contracted two amazing publicists to help us bring more media attention to the 95th and the festival: Cindy Dupree, a seasoned pro who served as the PR director and public information officer for the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development for more than 12 years, and Danielle Dror, a firecracker publicist from Asheville with her own PR firm, Victory Lap Media. As a team, we attracted dozens of international, national, regional and local outlets to Bristol and the festival, several of which had never previously attended the event. I must note that Cindy and Danielle’s experience and expertise in the field was essential in getting some incredible coverage, and I am blessed to have these fine ladies as friends and colleagues. With their help, we were able to facilitate dozens of interviews and generate an impressive number of great stories in the media.
Having Rosanne Cash headlining Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion on the 95th anniversary of the 1927 Bristol Sessions was also a huge deal, given her familial connection to Bristol through her dad and stepmom, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. Hers is a living history that opens a new perspective into the past. To say we were stoked about her visit is an understatement. Serendipitously, a special exhibit honoring Johnny Cash, “1968: A Folsom Redemption,” was on display at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum during Bristol Rhythm, and we were confident that it was something Rosanne would want to see.
I reached out to Rosanne’s longtime manager, Danny Kahn, to invite her on a tour of the museum and special exhibit while she was in Bristol and asked if she’d be interested in holding a small press event. I also asked for an interview to talk about her history with the Carter Family and Southwest Virginia that would be published in the September issue of Voice Magazine. Fortunately for us, Rosanne recognized the importance of her visit to Bristol and agreed to most of our requests, including the interview for Voice that you can read here.
Though I have been privileged to meet many amazing acts, it’s pretty unusual for me to have much contact with big name, headlining artists at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion. Other BCM team members usually work through artists’ tour managers to meet their needs. Unless I’m arranging interviews for them or just happen to be at their stage at the right time, I’m generally just a spectator like everyone else. In this instance, because my team and I were organizing the press event and I already had somewhat of a rapport with Danny, it just made sense for me to be the point person for Rosanne.
Rosanne was performing on Sunday, closing out Bristol Rhythm on its third and final day. Though her schedule was too busy to take in the entire museum, she did have a brief window of time to tour the special exhibit and speak to the media. Our team worked out a logistics plan for the press event at the museum, and we alerted attending journalists that there would be an opportunity for interviews. Here’s what the itinerary looked like:
10 a.m.: Rosanne and her team’s flight lands in Knoxville
12:30 p.m.: Rosanne arrives in Bristol
3:25 p.m.: Meet Rosanne in lobby at hotel
3:30 p.m.: Special exhibit tour
3:50 p.m.: Press event at museum
4:00 p.m.: Return Rosanne to hotel
4:45 p.m.: Pick up Rosanne from hotel lobby, take her to stage
5:15 p.m.: Rosanne’s performance
6:35 p.m.: Take Rosanne back to hotel
When you factor in how long it takes to get from point A to point B, you can see the itinerary is packed pretty tight. Not only did we want Rosanne and her team to have a good experience in Bristol, it was also important for the press event to be of value to our journalists. Many of them were there specifically to get an interview with her. Everything needed to be perfectly organized to stay on time.
BCM arranged for two drivers to pick up Rosanne, her team, and her band from the airport in rented SUVs. BCM booked a suite next door to the museum at The Bristol Hotel for Rosanne so she would be close by. Our drivers communicated to us that her flight had arrived on time, so we all breathed a sigh of relief. To remain on schedule, every detail had to be mapped out perfectly.
We put together a gift bag full of Bristol goodies from The Museum Store to have waiting in Rosanne’s hotel room before she arrived. Afterward we did a walkthrough of the press event with BCM staff to make sure our logistics were on point. When it was time, I met Leah Ross, BCM’s executive director of advancement, in the lobby of the hotel to greet Rosanne and her manager. We were only waiting a few minutes when Rosanne and Danny Kahn stepped off the elevator.
Rosanne Cash is a lovely lady with smiling eyes – and tiny! Maybe 5′ 2″ or 5′ 3″. My impression of her is that she is friendly, composed, and a bit reserved. She had that “look” I’ve seen on faces of other touring artists just arriving at the festival for the first time – it’s kind of like they’re trying to get their sea legs back after being on the road for a while. When I recognize “the look,” I am quick to reassure them of what’s coming next, answer questions, and generally try to make them feel at home. I gave the spiel to Danny Kahn – running through the logistics of how we’d be getting them to and from the museum, what would happen once we got there, and how we’d get them back to the hotel and to the stage. I sensed some relief before I guided them out the back of the hotel to my golf cart. I’ll add that Danny was great to work with. He has managed Rosanne for about 25 years and is very friendly, organized and hands-on. Every artist should be so lucky as to have a Danny Kahn on their team.
Dr. Rene Rodgers, head curator at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, was waiting for us at the back door. I made the introductions and, to save time, Rene immediately started talking about the special exhibit as we walked through the museum’s loading dock and into the back entrance of the special exhibit. I didn’t linger at this point, instead choosing to meet Cindy and Danielle who were waiting to let the media inside. At this time they were all gathered in the atrium of the museum. Our plan was to allow Rosanne a few minutes to browse the exhibit with Rene and then quietly open the door for the media about halfway through so they could set up any cameras and microphones.
Rosanne was genuinely engaged in the exhibit, and it was truly special to see her stop and admire certain photographs of her dad and ask questions. At some point Rosanne’s husband, John Leventhal, joined us in the gallery. Rosanne lingered at several photos, sometimes pointing things out to John and Danny, and commented on the ones she liked the most. Her smile spoke volumes as she moved from photograph to photograph and I believe she was sincerely moved by the experience.
After a few minutes, we quietly allowed the media to enter the room. When she had worked her way through the exhibit to the front of the gallery, we had a chair set up at the end of the room so she could sit and take questions, and she answered every single one. My friend Joe Dashiell, a veteran reporter at WDBJ-7 TV in Roanoke, had driven down for the event that day and captured this wonderful story.
Tom Wilmer, host of NPR’s “Journeys of Discovery” podcast, and Justin Goldman, Deputy Editor of Hemispheres, United Airlines’ onboard magazine, had previously requested one-on-one interviews with Rosanne following the press event. After we cleared the room, they stayed behind to speak with her. Neither of their interviews have posted yet, but if you follow us on social media they will be shared there once they’re online.
Side note: This was Tom Wilmer’s second visit to Bristol. He had visited the museum once when we first opened and I did an interview with him then. Cindy Dupree worked diligently to get him back to Bristol for the festival this year, and he collected a ton of interviews over the course of the three-day event. Click here to listen to his first story, “Bristol, VA-TN – resonating with America’s musical soul for a Century.” Click here to listen to his second story with Jack King, fourth generation owner of L. C. King Manufacturing Co., founded in Downtown Bristol in 1913 and the unofficial outfitter of musicians passing through town. You’ll hear a brief promo for NPR by Rosanne, recorded by Tom during his interview, at the end of the podcast.
Once her interviews were over, I rushed Rosanne back to her hotel on via trusty golf cart so she could freshen up before her set. I waited in the lobby until it was time to take her to the State Street Stage. Before long, she reemerged from the elevator, having changed into a simple black suit and contrasting red blouse – very reminiscent of her legendary father.
The golf cart ride gave me the opportunity to tell her a little more about the festival, since she wouldn’t have time to take it all in. I remember telling her that she would be standing in both states on the State Street Stage and she found that amusing, as most artists do. Many don’t realize until they arrive in Bristol what that looks like, and it’s so cool when they make that discovery.
Once backstage, I noticed Molly Tuttle standing in the wings. She had just finished her own set, and I could tell she really wanted to talk to Rosanne. Though Molly has performed at Bristol Rhythm several times, I’d never had the opportunity to meet her…but I am a big fan! Ironically, she was wearing a Molly Tuttle t-shirt and I couldn’t help but comment on it. I pulled her over to Rosanne and asked if they’d ever met. Immediately Rosanne says, “No, but I LOVE you!” Molly’s face lit up. I walked away so they could chat privately; it made me happy to have initiated the exchange. It’s moments like these I cherish most at the festival – people connecting. They will always remember when they met for the first time in Bristol. Priceless!
At that point I needed to break away to help Danielle with a task, my memory is a little fuzzy on what we were doing, but we left on a golf cart to do…something? On our way back we spotted Jim Lauderdale walking a block over on Shelby Street. He was on his way to see Rosanne. Of course we stopped and offered him a ride.
A little backstory: My relationship with Jim Lauderdale is now very informal. He is an old friend of the festival and has been so gracious and kind to us over the years. He has also gone above and beyond to promote Bristol on our behalf. Not only is he an immensely talented artist, he is a wonderful human and I genuinely love him. He is also super-accessible at the festival. He walks around from stage to stage as a fan…just amazing. Jim and Rosanne have been friends for decades – Jim actually introduced her to John Leventhal when she was still married to Rodney Crowell. She talks about the encounter in this interview with The Bitter Southerner, in case you’re interested. There are so many connections to Jim Lauderdale, I often joke that he’s the Kevin Bacon of country music!
When we made it back to the State Street Stage, Jim in tow, quite a crowd had formed. Rosanne’s was the final set of the festival, so throngs of people were making their way to see her perform. BCM had arranged for Bristol’s Mountain Empire Children’s Choral Academy‘s (MECCA) Highlands Youth Ensemble students to perform a tribute to Johnny Cash just prior to Rosanne’s set. They delivered a terrific performance to classics like “Ring of Fire” and “I Walk the Line” – just precious!
When it was time for Rosanne to take the stage, all of State Street erupted in thunderous applause. She began her set with “A Feather’s Not a Bird” and “The Sunken Lands” from her album The River & The Thread, then “The Only Thing Worth Fighting For” from She Remembers Everything. A little later in her set, she stopped to speak.
“I owe the Carter Family a tremendous debt because all of those Carter women…the first things I learned on guitar were those Carter Family songs,” Rosanne said from the stage. Then she broke into the Carter Family classic “Bury Me Beneath the Weeping Willow” from the 1927 Bristol Sessions.
Bristol Rhythm moments like these are simply iconic. Though I believe the majority of people who come to the festival know our history, it is likely that there are some who do not and just come to enjoy great music. Whenever an artist pays reverence to the 1927 Bristol Sessions from our stages, it’s a teaching moment. For Bristolians, in particular, it reinforces the work we are doing at BCM and reenergizes that sense of community pride for our music heritage. This declaration by Rosanne Cash – coupled with that song – festival GOLD. Check out Rosanne’s entire Bristol Rhythm 2022 set list here.
Rosanne had asked the Highlands Youth Choir kids to come back and join her on stage for one final number, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” a song that always brings tears to my eyes especially when it’s performed at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion. Luckily, someone in the audience captured the performance on video and posted it to YouTube, so you can see it here. Seeing the kids grooving with Rosanne during the performance was unforgettable and heartwarming.
After her set Rosanne spoke to a few fans and signed autographs, then I took her and John back to the hotel. Rosanne asked for a glass of wine to be sent up to her room and I jokingly said, “I’ll hook you up.” Amused, she shot me the side-eye and a sly smile before going up to her room. I immediately approached the hotel desk manager and asked them to send up a whole bottle!
About 15 minutes later Danny Kahn called my cell. He was still with the band at the State Street Stage loading up gear, but needed guidance getting his SUV over to the hotel. The barricades make it difficult to get around easily, but there is a route for emergency vehicles. I met up with him and he followed me in my golf cart to the back entrance.
Figuring my job for the day was done, I headed to Lumac Rooftop Bar above the Bristol Hotel for a much-needed cocktail with Cindy and Danielle. Just as I emerged from the elevator and into the bar, the bottom let out on a giant rain storm that had been threatening to burst all day. The hotel boasts 360 views of the entire city, but visibility at that moment was zero! It was coming down hard as bar patrons fled from the rooftop patio, soaked to the bone. Thank little baby Jesus the festival had ended at that point, but I instantly worried about everyone who was left out there trying to tear down their tents in the storm. The bartender handed me a martini and no sooner than I took the first sip, my phone rang.
“Rosanne is wondering around the lobby of the hotel and doesn’t know where to go. Will you help?” asked Danny Kahn. He was still outside the hotel, no doubt getting soaked. Without hesitation, I quickly got back on the elevator and headed downstairs. When the elevator doors opened, Rosanne was standing on the other side at our usual pick-up spot, looking beautiful and relaxed in an oversized, white sweatshirt and black leggings. It was then that I realized I was still holding my drink.
“I’m having a drink too,” I said, a little embarrassed, then set it down on a little table outside the hotel conference room. She gave me that gorgeous mega-watt smile and I guided her to the back exit. When we opened the door, we saw that Rosanne’s tour manager had backed the SUV into the little covered porch to try and stay dry as he loaded up suitcases. Rosanne got into the SUV and I ran over to the driver’s side to give Danny directions to the interstate. A minute or two later, they were driving away, headed back to Knoxville to spend the night so they could catch an early morning flight.
In solitude, I lingered under the porch in the back of the hotel to watch the rain for a little while and finished my martini, reflecting on that historic day in Bristol’s history and silently mourning the passing of another great festival. Each year I marvel at how truly precious all those little moments are that make up Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion weekend – and how they always seem to come and go so quickly.