Rhythm & Roots Reunion concludes
Festival offers musicians unique opportunity for interaction with regular folks
By David McGee | September 18, 2007
BRISTOL, Tenn. ? Now in its seventh year, the Rhythm & Roots Reunion has become one of the Twin City's signature events.
The festival, which pays homage to the city's music heritage, has grown exponentially in both attendance and reputation. The current incarnation, with top-name roots musicians and crowds measured in the tens of thousands, has evolved from more humble beginnings.
To better gauge the festival's significance, the Bristol Herald Courier spent time seeking the perspectives of musicians, industry insiders and other affiliated with the festival.
An established bluegrass star for more than a decade, Jeanette Williams was among the headliners of Bristol's first Rhythm & Roots Reunion in 2001. She is impressed with what the festival has become.
"I'm just really excited about the way that it's grown," Williams said Saturday after her first performance at the Paramount Center for the Arts. "This is such a special place because it is the birthplace of country music. It's an honor to be here and be included in this."
Williams said she remembers fewer stages and smaller crowds that first year, but she was still impressed with the city's heritage.
"With this history, it's great to be a part of this and play on this stage with what they've done with this beautiful theater."
Williams and her band have cut back their schedule, playing about 70 dates this year. They recently returned from touring five European countries and several Canadian provinces.
She said the Bristol festival now compares favorably with larger, more established music events where she's performed.
"There's festivals all over, but they know how to treat you right here. As an entertainer, it's a privilege to come to a festival where they appreciate the musicians and they treat you so well," Williams said.
"The fans who come out also really appreciate the music and that's really gratifying, too," she added.
In addition to touring, Williams recently released a duet single with country legend George Jones.
Bluegrass artists seeking a record deal have some extra incentive to play well this weekend. Mark Freeman, the general manager of Rebel Records, checked out Friday's performances and plans to return today.
"This is a scouting trip," Freeman said Friday. "I came because one of our top groups ? Steep Canyon Rangers ? is playing. But this is ground zero. There are a lot of good, young groups here."
Freeman said he typically only makes "two or three" such scouting trips annually.
"I think this festival is as good, maybe better, than Merlefest because of the lineup, " Freeman said, referring to the iconic roots music festival in North Wilkesboro, N.C., that annually pays tribute to the late guitarist Merle Watson, son of legendary picker Doc Watson.
"We haven't signed any new artists for two straight years, so we're definitely looking for talent," he said, adding they likely will only sign one new artist this year.
One of the oldest, most established labels in bluegrass music, Rebel is based in Charlottesville, Va. In addition to the Rangers, their top acts include Paul Williams and Dave Evans. In addition, Hall-of-Famer Ralph Stanley is a Rebel alumnus. Rebel records mostly traditional bluegrass artists, but is always on the lookout for someone original, Freeman said.
Seeing someone perform live is an integral part of the process, he said. Other criteria includes musicianship, vocal talent and an ability to entertain a crowd. "To have a chance, you've got to have a good live show," Freeman said. "If you have a good producer and a good engineer, you can work on that in the studio. A good entertainer, a good performer, is priceless."
A talented singer-songwriter from Pound, Va., Reagan Boggs made her fourth consecutive Rhythm & Roots appearances on Saturday.
"It's a fantastic festival," she said. "It took me awhile to even get into the festival. And I started out playing on some of the smaller stages, but there's nothing else like it."
Boggs said the downtown setting and a reasonable ticket price separate it from larger outdoor festivals like Merlefest. "It's the highlight of my year. It's something I look forward to all year," she said.
Quite a statement in a year that saw Boggs perform on the Mountain Stage PBS radio and television shows, receive some video attention from CMT and have her 2006 CD "Never Looking Behind" named among the top 30 of the year by Americana Highway.
"I've been given a lot of great opportunities there. I got to do a show with Darrell Scott, and it's really helped build my name recognition," she said.
Often compared to Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris in her vocal style, Boggs' sound has evolved from blues to country to Americana.
"The thing that's hard for me and [record] labels is I don't fit anywhere," Boggs said, adding she is unimpressed with contemporary country music.
While she enjoys playing before large crowds ? like the hundreds who saw her Saturday afternoon show ? Boggs said she is more comfortable in smaller, more intimate settings.
"I seem to make fans one or two at a time, not 50 at a time. I really like the smaller venues," she said.
Since releasing her third CD earlier this summer, Boggs and her band have traveled to promote the new disc. After Bristol, she is scheduled to play Nashville next month and is finalizing a schedule that could include trips to Maryland and the western U.S.
Music historian and broadcaster Jeff DeFord knew a good deal about the 1927 Bristol Sessions long before he stepped onto State Street this weekend.
In fact, DeFord recently did a two-hour show on the Bristol Sessions on his weekly Bluegrass Roots and Branches program on Internet Web site ? worldwidebluegrass.com.
"I'm having the time of my life just walking around soaking all this up," DeFord said. "This has been a wonderful experience."
A regular at most of the nation's established bluegrass festivals, DeFord called Rhythm & Roots an "eye-opener."
"This is one of the most well-organized festivals, all the volunteers are really knowledgeable, and it's just a great organization. I have yet to find any flaws," DeFord said.
This weekend, DeFord has broadcast live interviews with musicians and others attending the festival. He's also recorded some interviews to include in future shows.
Although DeFord usually broadcasts from Arizona, all he really needs is his laptop computer and an Internet connection.
"My show really focuses on the history and where this music we call bluegrass came from, before we called it bluegrass," DeFord said. "So I'm trying to get as much information as I can on these bands."
He called the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a North Carolina-based string band, very intriguing.
Rhythm & Roots has always relied on downtown restaurants, clubs and coffee shops to host a significant number of performances. It has become one of the most important weekends of the year, said State Line Bar and Grille co-owner Annette Estes.
Located in the heart of the downtown area, State Line crowds typically overflow out onto the sidewalk throughout the three-day event.
"It's a huge for sales, but it's great to be part of the festival," Estes said. "We've had music in here, and been a main stage, since the first year we opened. It really gets our name out there."
State Line and most other downtown restaurants and clubs are open throughout the festival, and typically have live performances all day. This year, in addition to its regular stage, State Line is hosting fans and performers on its second floor.
"If we want certain bands our voice is heard," Estes said. "We don't really pick, so we have no complaint with who they've put in here. The only thing we've asked for is for someone who'll play later because Friday and Saturday we'll be open until 2 or 3 a.m."
The festival's benefits extend well beyond a weekend in September, Estes said. "We get so many people from Bristol and this area who say they've never heard of State Line until they came in here during the festival," Estes noted.
Katie Sword volunteered to spend a few hours selling posters during the inaugural Rhythm & Roots Reunion in 2001. Six years later, the Vance Middle School teacher and coach devotes much of her spare time to helping make the music festival a success.
"It sounds cheesy, but I'm proud of this festival in my hometown. And I want people who live here to have something like this to look forward to," Sword said.
Over the years, the festival has gained a national reputation among roots music fans. "People everywhere know what it is and where it is. It's just gotten bigger and bigger," Sword said.
Throughout this weekend, about 600 volunteers will sell tickets and souvenirs, provide security, run errands and fill dozens of other duties. With most of her responsibilities completed, Sword is spending the weekend answering questions and helping when needed.
The bustling streets and meshing of musical styles are a far cry from months of answering telephones, filling ticket orders, securing hotel rooms and tending to a long list of mundane but necessary tasks. In the weeks before the festival, Sword works about five hours each night and nearly every weekend.
Leah Ross, the festival's executive director, said Sword and the other volunteers are indispensable. "Everything she does is very time consuming and one person can't do all that," Ross said. "Without volunteers like Katie, this festival wouldn't be possible."
A confirmed fan of the Avett Brothers, Sword said her only real reward for months of working behind the scenes was getting to introduce the band on stage Friday night.