As the Highlands Choir completed the final strains of "Will the Circle be Unbroken" to the delight of a massive crowd, CSX 4200 sounded its warning as it approached the State Street intersection Sunday afternoon - to the delight of a packed crowd.
The spirit of Johnny Cash was surely omnipresent during the closing performance of the 21st annual Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion - by Rosanne Cash, John's eldest daughter.
Performing on the State Street stage - a short distance from where the 1927 Bristol Sessions recordings occurred and also not far from where Cash, his wife June Carter Cash, Mother Maybelle Carter and others convened in 1971 to honor those same recordings.
It was a memorable moment for a festival celebrating the 95th anniversary of those recordings which no less an authority than Johnny Cash dubbed, "the most important event in country music history."
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Once onstage, Rosanne Cash acknowledged her connection to this region.
"I have to say this is a deeply moving vision to be here in front of you all," Cash said. "So much of my personal history and cultural history is tied up in this very spot on earth."
She acknowledged her family's deep roots in Tennessee and the connection to Southwest Virginia and the Carter Family's first recordings occurring in Bristol.
"I owe the Carter family a tremendous debt because all of those Carter women, the first things I learned on the guitar was those Carter Family songs," she said.
From the expression on her face, Cash - who was going on just a couple hours of sleep - visibly enjoyed performing in Bristol, calling it the "most fun" she'd had in 30 years.
Before her were thousands of adoring fans who packed into every square inch from the stage all the way back to the intersection with Lee and 5th streets and cheered loudly as she ran through many of her hit songs.
Prior to her performance, Cash toured the special exhibit at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum - Folsom Prison Redemption - a photo exhibit from Johnny Cash's landmark 1968 recording at Folsom Prison in California.
"I'm thrilled to be here. I really am," she told a gaggle of reporters including many from the national music industry. "Part of my bloodstream is Virginia and part is Tennessee and here we are at the crux of that...This is so rich in my own family history which makes it doubly powerful to be here today."
Cash said it was "almost embarrassing" it had taken so long to get to Bristol.
"Tomorrow [Sept. 12] is the 19th anniversary of my dad's passing so its just added reverence for me to be here on this say," she said.
She has passed through Maces Springs many times to visit the Carter Family homestead and has fond memories performing at the Carter Fold a "couple of times."
"I love this area. We went canoeing on the Holston River and had a lot of fun," she said.
Cash toured the exhibit with museum Head Curator Rene Rodgers.
"I was aware my dad was doing a concert at a prison, but didn't realize the cultural impact of it, obviously. And then it became so identifiable with my dad, his image and who he was in the world and how people perceived him. It seemed like something that had always been part of him," she said.
Her personal favorite photos weren't those of Cash the performer but the relaxed spontaneous moments.
"My favorite is him with the tape recorder when they wrote 'Grey Stone Chapel. 'That really moved me because it captured the look and the intensity of songwriting and how devoted he was to that.
"Then there is another of him just relaxing and laughing. I like those moments of just catching him unawares. A lot of the other photographs, I appreciate the beauty of them but they are a lot Johnny Cash. Those two in particular are dad," she said.
Crowds all three days appeared to approach pre-COVID levels despite persistent showers Saturday morning and early afternoon which ended by mid-afternoon.
"I'm not surprised at the crowds we've had," Leah Ross, executive director of advancement for the Birthplace of Country Music. "We had a great turnout this weekend. I don't think rain dampened anybody's spirits. It's exciting to see all these stages full of people watching all these different artists and having a great time."
Rain isn't a stranger at the festival -even reappearing Sunday afternoon - but Ross said attendees and artists persevered.
"I think the good Lord has been looking down on us. There's nothing I can do about the weather and we just pray it clears up when it needs to. And it did," she said. "But even when it was raining Saturday, there were still people at stages listening to music wearing their ponchos."
Local band 49 Winchester was one of the headliners on Saturday night and Ross said its crowd rivals some of the biggest in festival history for people like Old Crow Medicine Show, Emmylou Harris and Dwight Yoakam.
BCM, the festival's parent organization has a large number of new employees and Ross said all have given "150% from two or three weeks in advance" to make sure the event was successful.
"They're tired but they're taking great pride in what this festival means to our community," Ross said.
The festival attracted about 45,000 in 2019 prior to the pandemic and last year's crowd was about half that. Ross said they expect to have an official count soon.
Not only were the crowds larger than 2021, there were many new attendees, BCM Board Chair Brent Treash said.
"We were really intentional with our bookings this year and we had a more diverse lineup," Treash said. "I've been so happy to see that diversity is showing itself in the crowd as well. There's a lot of new faces here and its great to expose them to Bristol and the festival and everything else we have to offer."
Treash said he's hearing from people about how "great the experience is."
"I think our alumni always get that, but its great to see so many first-timers this year. I don't know what it is but something is drawing them to Bristol and we're excited to have them," Treash said.
Police made one arrest on Friday night and four on Saturday, Capt. Steve Crawford of the Bristol Virginia Police Department said Sunday afternoon.
The overwhelming majority of attendees were well-behaved, Crawford said.
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