By Charlene Tipton Baker, April 18, 2018
The first time Old Crow Medicine Show played Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, it was 2004. I have particularly fond memories of that year because, in my mind, that’s when we became a bona fide music festival – one destined to make as big of an impact on Bristol and our downtown community as the 1927 Bristol Sessions did for early commercial country music back in the day.
One might say Hollywood had a hand in it, as the success of three major motion picture soundtracks over the previous years had sparked popular interest in Appalachian music: The Coen Brothers’ cult classic O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Maggie Greenwald’s Songcatcher, both released in 2000, and Cold Mountain, which opened in 2003. The albums from these films were wildly successful, winning dozens of awards – Grammys and Grammy nominations among them – and cast a wide spotlight on the music and musicians of our region like never before. O Brother highlighted the career of Dr. Ralph Stanley, bringing him the further recognition he so richly deserved. Our friends the Reeltime Travelers (based in East Tennessee) were featured on the Cold Mountain soundtrack and were part of the “Down from the Mountain Tour,” an extension of the documentary film by the same name that featured artists and musicians from the O Brother soundtrack. In addition, our very own Ed Snodderly, a renowned singer-songwriter and owner of The Down Home in Johnson City, Tennessee, played a crazy fiddler in O’ Brother. The stars were totally aligned in our favor.
By the time we started booking for 2004’s Bristol Rhythm, a trajectory had been set, and “Wagon Wheel” was nowhere near cliché. That was the year I fell in love with the festival – and Bristol – for real. That was the year I knew that my little hometown was destined for so much more. It would prove to be a record-breaking year for attendance (maybe 20–25,000? If memory serves!), and I will never forget the energy on State Street. It was magical.
I remember seeing Old Crow for the first time that weekend in 2004. They were so young and scruffy in their worn jeans, wrinkled flannel shirts, and unkempt hair. They were just kids! But they were absolutely on fire when they hit the stage. They played two sets that weekend, and they were the band everyone was talking about.
I will add that they were also really nice to our volunteers and expressed genuine gratitude for the gig. And they knew Bristol’s history, even if Bristol wasn’t yet fully aware of that history yet. Every time I watch the films in the Orientation and Immersion Theaters inside the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, I am so glad to see those guys featured in them. Old Crow Medicine Show helped incite a new wave of progressive Appalachian music not seen since the days of Newgrass Revival – bands that would wield banjos like rock stars and generate enough crowd energy to fuel a small city.
“The Big Lineup Reveal” for Bristol Rhythm ’18 stirred up a bit of sentimentality for 2004, which I didn’t quite expect, and lots of excitement for the return of Old Crow Medicine Show this year. So when putting together the 2018 Bristol Rhythm Spotify playlist, I felt it rather appropriate to start out with Old Crow singing “Wagon Wheel” – because it is a great song, despite the crappy covers, and it’s the one song that I identify most with Bristol Rhythm ’04, the year that defined the festival and paved the way for the lineup we’ll have this year. I hope you enjoy this eclectic mix tape of bands playing at Bristol Rhythm ’18!