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Sweet sounds of music close out 20th anniversary of downtown Bristol festival
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Sweet sounds of music close out 20th anniversary of downtown Bristol festival

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BRISTOL, Tenn. — File another chapter into the ongoing history of the Birthplace of Country Music.

Sunday afternoon signaled the third and final day of the 20th Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion. Not quite as swarmed with people as in years past, downtown Bristol nonetheless rang with the sweet sounds of music.

High noon yesterday, Richmond’s Woody Woodworth stood backstage at Piedmont moments before his Rhythm & Roots debut. His band, The Piners, flanked him.

“It’s such an honor,” said Woodworth, “to play this festival.”

Tailored well in black, Woodworth unveiled a fetching batch of rockers. He also made a point to sharpen the twang with a handful of country numbers, including “Country Ain’t Country” and “In the Pines.”

“I’m not a country artist,” Woodworth said before his show began, “but I grew up with Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. It wouldn’t seem right to me to be in the Birthplace of Country Music and not do country music.”

Even Southern rockers Blackberry Smoke, who eviscerated the State Street Stage late Saturday night, paid respects to the birthplace. Deep into their 90-minute set, which included triple-guitar crunchers “Good One Comin’ On” and 2018’s “Medicate My Mind,” lead singer Charlie Starr spoke of Bristol in referencing the 1927 Bristol Sessions.

“This is a historical place in the United States of America,” Starr said, before he pointed to where the historical recordings happened 94 years ago. “I’ve got a surprise coming for you.”

After the new “You Hear Georgia,” Starr traded his Gibson electric for a Gibson acoustic guitar. He sang a verse of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel (T for Texas),” attempted a yodel and grinned real wide. Then before the day struck midnight, Starr dedicated “Freedom Song” to “everyone who lost their lives and the first responders on 9/11.”

Throughout the weekend vendors vended, buskers busked, and people reveled in the sun and low humidity.

Chef Travis Milton, 42, of Bristol, Virginia, cooked and sold food on Piedmont. He said he enjoyed Texan Charley Crockett, a hardcore country singer, who played for an hour well into yesterday afternoon.

“From a vendor’s standpoint, it was a bit less people than in years past,” said Milton. “But I had more meaningful interactions with the guests.”

While Milton spoke, Texas country singer Charley Crockett paid homage to the late Tom T. Hall with “That’s How I Got to Memphis.” Around the corner on State Street, Momma Molasses summoned Don Gibson’s “Look Who’s Blue.”

Molasses followed Bristol’s Bailey George and Jessica Stiles. Dressed in vintage attire, they revived Grandpa Jones’ revving “Jesse James,” as well as the George Jones-written, Stonewall Jackson-recorded jewel, “Life to Go.”

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Frankly, music permeated downtown Bristol. One of Sunday’s stars, bluegrass queen Rhonda Vincent and her band The Rage, entertained a large crowd at Tim White’s Country Music Mural. While Son Little plied rhythm and blues near the Bristol sign on State Street, Vincent polished a set full of triumphs.

For instance, as she clutched a mandolin in her hands, she rendered masterful takes of Porter Wagoner’s country classic “What Ain’t to Be Just Might Happen” and Jimmy Martin’s bluegrass barreling “Tennessee.”

“Tennesseeeeeeeee,” Vincent sang on the latter, “I hear you calling me!”

While she sang, Vincent peered into the eyes of those who made Bristol’s history in 1927. From the famous mural, Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, Ralph Peer and Pop and Hattie Stoneman appeared to look directly back at Vincent as she carried on that which they helped to start.

Indeed, more Bristol history was made over the weekend.

Add Johnson City wunderkind Amythyst Kiah, one of this year’s national breakout artists, to Bristol’s growing annals of history. Kiah spun a dynamic solo set at the Paramount while Vincent conducted her legendary trade at the mural.

Gleaming white Gibson SG electric guitar in her hands, Kiah emoted as if for the angels to hear during such revelatory songs as “Black Myself.” Her bountiful voice, a gift of distinction, reached low and soared high during the new “Fancy Drones (Fracture Me).”

Simply put, Amythyst Kiah amounts to a constellation bound for stardom multiplied.

As Kiah sang, vendor Richard Mink hawked a wild range of jackets on State Street. Airbrushed creations of such figures as hair metal Motley Crue’s Nikki Sixx, country’s Johnny Cash and The Grinch — yes, in all his grouchy green glory — awaited purchase from passersby.

“Sales have been off the chart,” said Mink, who lives in Bristol, Virginia.

Across State, Bristol’s Ryan Kendrick busked in the sizzling sun. Hat in the street, guitar clutched to his chest, he sweated notes of blues and rock for eager folks as they paused while strolling by.

“Charlie Starr, Blackberry Smoke, dude, I loved them last night,” Kendrick said. “For me, tips have been good, man.”

Kendrick, as with rock’s Blackberry Smoke and country’s John Anderson, the retiring Dr. Dog and the phenomenal Sierra Ferrell, comprised elements of what made the 20th installment of Rhythm & Roots a smashing success. Add Birthplace of Country Music executive director Leah Ross and board members Dan Bieger and Edd Hill. And then add such longtime Rhythm & Roots attendees as Bristol’s Jon Houser and Scott Thoma, as well as Abingdon’s Stephanie Pease and Sandra Parker, to the mix.

Well-chosen music and dedicated people make Rhythm & Roots go.

In sum, a vortex of Appalachian culture spun like a friendly tornado in downtown Bristol in the form of the 20th Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion. Quite the saga this year. COVID-19 loomed, but not so large as to deter either the rhythm or the roots that comprise the heartbeat of Bristol.

Tom Netherland is a freelance writer. He may be reached at features@bristolnews.com.

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