Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion features local groups
By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | August 28, 2013When you walk into Leah Ross's office, you immediately know she has an overriding interest in music. Her walls are covered with framed posters from Bristol's Rhythm and Roots Reunion and groups such as The Black Lilies.
"I love my Black Lilies, I love my Mumford, I love Saint Paul and the Broken Bones because it says Wise, Va., right above New York, New York," she says.
Ross says being the executive director of BR&RR is her dream job.
"I've been here since the beginning. I started out as a volunteer. Terry Smith called me when the festival was under the direction of the city, and asked if I would come and do logistics for the committee, and I said "sure.' I ended up becoming chair of the committee that year and the next. I feel very blessed because it's my dream job, and I love coming to work every day. It's been rewarding to see how it's grown; it's through the efforts of many, many people. I get thanked all the time, but I tell you I'm really, really a small part of this big picture." The first R&RR took place in 2001 and had an attendance of 7,500. Last year, an estimated 50,000 people from 36 states and seven countries attended.
This year's Rhythm and Roots Reunion, as it does every year, features an extensive line-up of local and regional groups. More than a quarter of the groups are from what BR&RR considers the local and regional area.
"We go as far as Wytheville, even up on White Top Mountain, over toward Mountain City and Southwest Virginia. We consider Knoxville and Asheville regional, because they play so much in this area," Ross says. "We try to book artists that are not only great performers but also have some of their own original songs. We try not to get a lot into cover bands — not that there's not a lot of great talent there — but it's all about trying to help artists who want to go outside of these walls; because we're so rich in artists and talent in this area.
"Some people say we don't have local artists, but we do. We've always been committed to that. They just don't know who's local. A lot of that is in our program guide, but our space is so limited we have to use the bios that tell about the bands rather than where they're from." (To supplement these bios, A! Magazine for the Arts is providing a list of local and regional groups on page 5.)
The bands range from Celtic to indie to old-time and beyond. A music committee, consisting of eight people, chooses the artists. The members are interested in different genres of music. "We have a really diverse group that's always fighting for a particular genre or thinks we're getting a little overloaded in one. So some of those meetings can get a little intense," Ross says.
"Sometimes a band has a following or someone on the music committee says "we've got to get this band.' I'll tell you it's not easy choosing this one over that one. We get so many requests that we have put on our website that we don't accept unsolicited requests. It's not because they aren't worthy of looking at, but we have such an active music committee that we don't have time to review all of them," Ross says.
Scheduling is also difficult for local and regional bands. "So many local people play in multiple bands, so you have to be very careful. I just had to change the schedule last week, because someone was playing in two different bands and couldn't get from one venue to the next in time."
Unlike other music festivals, the headliners often wander around, listen to other bands and sometimes sit in on a session. One of Ross's favorite stories is about just such a headliner – John Oates. "The most rewarding statement anyone ever said was when John Oates was here. He was scheduled to play one day. He came in on Thursday and didn't leave until Monday. He sat in with different artists. When he was on the State Street stage he said this was the "best music experience he had had in his life.' Maybe he just said that in the moment, but he did say that. So it was pretty huge.
"And another special moment was a couple of years ago when we did a tribute to the Carter Family. It was special to hear all the different artists who participated talk about how special Bristol was and how important the Carter Family was to music today."
BR&RR continues the Bristol Sessions tradition of furthering musical careers. "We like to take credit for the popularity of The Carolina Chocolate Drops," Ross says. "They weren't heard of very much when they came here, and the next year they were playing MerleFest. I think that's why so many different artists want to come to our festival – because of the exposure they get. Every year we have booking agents and people here scouting out the artists that we have.
"When I go to festivals, I see the headliners on the stage and at artists' autograph events. You don't see them out in the crowd. But when you come here, you're going to see them out in the crowd, maybe sitting in on a set with someone. There's a lot of interaction. It's cool not only for the artists, but also for the people here because even the festival-goers get to interact. One of the things we hear from fans is that the one thing they like is they know they're going to discover someone they've never heard of before, and they're going to start following them. I know we're an artist festival where people get noticed."
If you want to see who's getting noticed this year, BR&RR is Sept. 20 through Sept. 22 in downtown Bristol. As Ross says, "Come be a part of it. It's going to be a great one."
— Two new events at Rhythm and Roots scheduled