The 2012 Rhythm and Roots Reunion: A salute to the working artists
The annual Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion is officially over. Time for the folks in Bristol to begin next year’s event, and time for all the musicians who played on the various stages over the three day festival to settle in to another week of gigs. This festival, which began in 2001, attracted over 45,000 people from across the world in 2011, and most likely exceeded that amount of street walking music hounds this year.
As much as anything else, this festival is an ongoing salute to the working singers, songwriters, and bands in America who promote their own albums, build a fan base over time and by traveling long distances and who follow a most demanding muse.
If you look at a roster of performers for this year’s festival, you won’t see any “instant winners.” Most every performer, from the main stage to the buskers on State Street, have worked their asses off to get to where they are. And, when you look at where the stages are located for Rhythm and Roots, the set up is somewhat remindful of a sideways version of the old carnival game where you hit the lever with a hammer and the ball rockets to the top and rings the bell – or, most likely, stops somewhere shy of the top.
So it is when you see Robert Earl Keen on the State Street stage, or the SteelDrivers (above) on the Country Mural Stage (the stages are opposite ends of the block and generally on opposite ends of the traditional to contemporary scale as well) there are some hard working performers in the clubs along the street, from Megan Jean and the KFB to This Mountain (below), a hard-working East Tennessee outfit fairly new and performing without a net on the sidewalk.
And then, somewhere in the middle of all of that you’ll find guys like Kenny Vaughan, solo and with a new performer, Sam Lewis (below), or Eric Brace and Last Train Home, or you’ll find regional favorites who can pack a hometown crowd for this event while still building the national reputation, like The Black Lillies.
The Rhythm and Roots Reunion has evolved into one of the South’s top music festivals. The hard work of Leah Ross and the rest of the folks who run the festival – and who’s offices sit where the original Bristol recording sessions featuring Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family were made (the original building having been torn down many years ago) – pays off in first rate facilities, a safe environment and a friendly atmosphere. If you find someone in a bad mood at Rhythm and Roots, chances are they’ve worked hard to achieve it.
The dedication and awareness the festival organizers bring to booking this event is amazingly impressive. It doesn’t take a lot of genius to book Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver (Doyle being a local boy who made good), or Patti Loveless (two years ago), or Billy Joe Shaver. The genius comes in knowing to give a prime stage to a band like the Spirit Family Reunion, who hail from the Northeast and perform as if they were given massive doses of “The Basement Tapes” Mojo. Or to keep track of groups like Della Mae (below), a group of five girls who look like a perfect fit for a college sorority house yet play elegant bluegrass.
It is impossible to hear it all, see it all at Rhythm and Roots. The stages get set back a little further each year as the organizers realize how large the crowds are becoming and try to accommodate more fans. And as night falls and the clubs fill to hear the bands that aren’t quite ready for the big stages (yet) and the street fills with the overflow from the Robert Earl Keen or Billy Joe Shaver shows, you have the feeling your in a little over your head.
You sit and your feet hurt, and your ears are picking up the soundwaves from all the stages like your trapped inside the mp3 player and all the tunes are going at once. When a bluegrass tune ends you can pick up blues from somewhere down the street – was that the Desmembered Tennesseans, or Red Molly? And then the fiddle kicks off the tune and your full-throttle on a high ridge somewhere with a driving banjo, or maybe Nashville legend Fats Kaplan (below) is sitting in with someone (like Eric Brace and Last Train Home) and his aching pedal steel work is piercing the night.
The website for Rhythm and Roots Reunion 2013 proudly boasts, 395 days left (as of Sept. 19). No question it will be successful. The only question will be how to cram so much music into three days in September!
Photos by Mike Clark