In August 2013, St. Paul & The Broken Bones made an epic debut in Historic Downtown Bristol. The band was booked to headline Believe in Bristol‘s Border Bash free summer concert series with opener Blair Crimmins & The Hookers, and so begins the story of how the simple purchase of a band t-shirt may have helped direct the upward trajectory of the band’s career and continues to enrich my life with warm memories and great comfort after almost a decade of faithful wear.
Hailing from the iconic and eclectic music scene of Birmingham, Alabama, St. Paul & The Broken Bones had only been together for about a year when they arrived in Bristol, otherwise known as the birthplace of country music. Though still in its infancy, the band was already creating a buzz in roots music circles with its throwback R&B sound, complete with jazzy horns and a killer lead vocalist that invoked the spirits of Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, and Wilson Pickett in every soul-gutting note. It was so early in the band’s development, they were paid only a few hundred dollars for the Border Bash booking, plus dinner. I can’t say for sure, but I believe the band likely accepted the gig because lead singer Paul Janeway’s girlfriend at the time, Caroline Williams, had family in Bristol who could put them up for the night.
It was my first time seeing either band live, and I was really stoked. I remember the show was well-attended and both bands killed. At one point in St. Paul’s set, Janeway’s mic briefly went out. Already a seasoned and flamboyant performer, Paul didn’t miss a beat…he ditched the dead mic and leapt from the stage to join my daughter Callie in an impromptu dance session. She was only four years old at the time and loved to dance at Border Bash. However, once she realized all eyes were on her and her flashy new dance partner, my baby girl had a moment and bolted!
Once the mic issue was resolved, the band played into the night – making a big splash and lifelong fans in Bristol. After the show, I couldn’t get over to the merch tent fast enough to buy a St. Paul t-shirt and a CD from Caroline, who was manning the table. At some point Paul and a couple members of the band came over and chatted with us, and they were all super-gracious and kind. Paul and I laughed over Callie’s reaction to him joining her on the dance floor, and for several months after that encounter, she begged to listen to the band’s CD on repeat in the car.
Both bands that performed at Border Bash that evening returned the following month to Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion (see the full 2013 festival lineup here) to much acclaim, with St. Paul & The Broken Bones participating in a Live and Breathing recording session from the sewing floor at LC King Manufacturing while they were here. To date, those videos have received over a million views on YouTube – and the video below was featured in a background scene of the HBO series “Big Little Lies” (Season One, Episode 6: Burning Love).
Following the February 2014 release of their album “Half the City,” St. Paul & The Broken Bones was invited to perform at Hangout Music Festival and Bonnaroo, and also returned to the Bristol Rhythm lineup that September. In December of that year Paul married his sweetheart, Caroline, and the band’s stock was certainly going up. They were getting higher-profile gigs in bigger venues and earned coveted opening slots for acts like Drive-By Truckers and Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. The latter performance was held at a bucket list venue for Janeway, as it took place at Nashville’s “Mother Church,” The Ryman. In this interview with Alabama.com, Janeway mentions that the band received three standing ovations that night.
Fast-forward to 2015 and the year my dear friend and co-worker Tracey Childress refers to as her “Year of Music.” She and her husband Eric took in several of their own bucket list shows in 2015, which included seeing Paul McCartney and a big Grateful Dead reunion tour. Me and my hubby Tim tagged along with them to see a cathartic 3-hour Fleetwood Mac show in Knoxville in March, during which I unexpectedly cried through almost the entire concert. The whole band was back together in its original form, and being in the same room with Stevie Nicks and seeing them play with such exuberance literally sent me on an emotional journey I hadn’t been prepared to take.
We learned The Rolling Stones were bringing their Zip Code Tour to Atlanta’s Bobby Dodd Stadium and that the opening act was none other than St. Paul & The Broken Bones! There was no way we were missing it, even if we had to sit in the nosebleed section. Tickets in hand, we booked our hotel rooms and hit the road. I made sure to pack the t-shirt I had bought at the Border Bash show two years prior and proudly wore it to the concert.
For the record, I live for full-circle moments like these. Even though it was impossible that anyone from the band would see me in the crowd, I still came to represent in the St. Paul & The Broken Bones t-shirt I’d purchased two years prior. Also, once a band or artist has played Bristol Rhythm, it’s a bond that will never be broken. They are instantly part of our musical family and our story.
I ended up running into a couple of Atlanta friends I knew at the show who weren’t familiar with the band, and several people seated next to us were equally unaware of the greatness they were about to witness. My t-shirt opened up conversations about Bristol Rhythm and gave me the opportunity to brag about the band.
When St. Paul finally took the stage, it was exciting to see how the band had honed its stage show to perfection; their fiery energy primed the crowd perfectly for The Stones set and the whole night was magical. I’m still so proud of them and so incredibly happy for their success. Both The Stones and Fleetwood Mac shows are particularly sentimental to me now that we have lost Stones’ drummer Charlie Watts and the divine Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac. Most of all, I cherish those memories with Eric and Tracey whom I’ve been seeing shows with for the better part of 30 years.
Back to the shirt…there is an existing school of thought that it is uncool to wear your favorite band’s t-shirt to their concerts. I call B.S. on that, but I did run across this article panning the practice and another op-ed accusing band tee snobs of being self-loathing know-it-alls – so there’s that. I posed the question, “Is it cool or uncool to wear your favorite band’s t-shirt to their concerts?” on Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion’s Facebook page, asking fans and musicians to weigh in on the matter. The response was a unanimous “it’s cool” from both sides.
I have an entire chest of drawers overflowing with band and festival t-shirts, and they are a constant in my weekly wardrobe. I’ll never regret a single purchase, and I’d like to think that $15 or $20 investment in my favorite artists may be putting gas in their vans to get them to the next gig where a whole new audience will fall in love with their music. I’d like to think that my investment in St. Paul & The Broken Bones in those early years contributed to that in some small way.
Buying band merch is especially meaningful to local musicians. When you slap their stickers on your bumpers or sport a cool tee out in public, not only are you advertising their art, you are supporting a small business in your community, plus helping local artists tour, record new music, replace broken guitar strings, etc. Also, when you show up to their shows wearing those t-shirts, you’re showing them how much you love them. The energy exchange there is priceless, and it gives them incentive to keep creating.
This Christmas season, instead of buying stuff, consider giving your music-loving friends tickets to a concert and a cool band t-shirt to wear to the show. Every time they wear that shirt they’ll think of you and the great gift of a cool music experience that you gave them – plus, added bonus: it’s the perfect opportunity to promote hard-working musicians. Like St. Paul & The Broken Bones, they could be really huge one day, and your friends could have a great band story like mine to tell. It’s literally an unbroken circle of good vibes all around.
Shameless plug, but Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion is a great festival for discovering new talent. Acts like The Avett Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show, Amythyst Kiah, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, 49 Winchester, Moon Taxi, and Sierra Ferrell are just a few examples of talent we’ve hosted early on in their careers. Additionally, Bristol is a great example of how a thriving music scene breathes new life into a community, adds jobs, and supports its local economy through tourism, so make that investment and watch your local music scene thrive!
Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion weekend passes make great stocking stuffers, and our festival tees are a great, quality purchase – just sayin’! We are nonprofit and a small business, so everything you give goes back into the festival and our community. Visit our website at BristolRhythm.com for more information, we’ll be rolling out the 2023 lineup early in the New Year! In the meantime, we hope you enjoy the following Bristol Rhythm Christmas Party Playlist on Spotify – filled with amazing artists that have performed at the festival – to keep you in the holiday spirit all season long!