The festival took place last weekend (September 9-10) in the birthplace of Country Music - Bristol, Tennessee.
While Bristol sits evenly between Tennessee and Virginia, it is wholly Appalachian. A charming little town that changed the world when The Bristol Sessions took place in 1927, it hosts the annual Rhythm and Roots Reunion, a festival now in it's 22nd year.
Rooted in that tradition but welcoming of the future, the massive reunion has artists in 12 venues playing multiple variations of country music at any given time. Holler had the pleasure of spending the weekend in Bristol once again, and we’re already planning our return for next year. Here are some of our favorite acts from the 2023 lineup.
49 Winchester Superset
Those who toughed out the 30-minute storm on Sunday afternoon for 49 Winchester's hour-and-45-minute super set were rewarded with a phenomenal star-studded event.
From an incredible rendition of ‘Superstition’ with Sam Collie, to a beautiful Jimmy Buffett tribute in ‘A Pirate Looks At Forty’ with Jim Lauderdale, the set highlighted the talent and versatility of both the 49 boys and each of the artists they chose to share the stage with.
While a 49 Winchester set is always a treat, this one was truly something memorable.
While it’s hardly a surprise that Amythyst Kiah earned a 2020 Grammy nomination for Best Roots Song, seeing her rocking out on the Piedmont Stage on day one with her dynamic four piece backing band made it clear she possesses the confidence and cool to move well beyond her early endeavors. Granted, there are certain songs, like the deep blues of 'Tender Organs', the gospel-like gravitas of 'Trouble So Hard', and her take on the venerable folk standard 'Darlin’ Corey' that bind her up in traditional trappings, but there’s no denying she’s now capable of delivering both flourish and finesse with equal aptitude.
Margo Price is a phenom. When we think of artists who know how to command a stage, she is always one of the first on our minds. As we’ve seen from covering Margo throughout the year, it’s always surprising how her set takes form.
At Luck Reunion in March, she was more reserved, at Long Road she brought her no-fucks-given attitude, but at Bristol she was truly in her element - something that shone throughout her performance. To top it off - mid-way through the set - Miss Margo surprised the crowd with an outfit change, accentuating the metamorphosis into her more psychedelic-tinged songs of late.
Bruce Hornsby & the Noisemakers
Anyone who still believed Bruce Hornsby is simply a one-hit wonder courtesy of his early classic 'The Way It Is' would likely change their opinion after watching his performance in the sprawling environs of Cumberland Square Park. Yes, he played his signature song, but the trademark piano riff gave his big band opportunity to improvise over it. Hornsby’s tenure with the Dead is frequently reflected in his fluid delivery and precise pacing, but his co-writes with other artists (Robbie Robertson on 'Go Back To Your Woods') and Don Henley on 'The End of Innocence') had a prominent place as well. That said, his mandolin take onSnoop Dog’s 'Prairie Dog Town' had to be the most unlikely — and inspired — performance of the entire festival.
AJ Lee & Blue Summit
After a weekend of travel woes, AJ Lee & Blue Summit really brought it to Bristol. The band had fans out of their chairs and dancing, some even shedding a tear during the set, all while eager to hear favorites like ‘Still Love You Still’ and ‘Harvest Moon’. With soaring vocals, sweet harmonies and incredible instrumental work, AJ Lee & Blue Summit were truly a highlight of the weekend. The group is a well oiled machine, but their live performance feels more pure than automatic.
Farm and Fun Time Radio Show
Hosted by Radio Bristol Program Director Kris Truelsen and his house band Bill and the Belles, Farm and Fun Time celebrates Appalachian tradition with music and mirth. A reimagining of the classic WCYB Radio program that helped seminal bluegrass musicians become household names, it blends homespun humor with cultural content. This particular episode featured rising star and festival favorite Kelsey Waldron, a promising trio named Palmyra who are similar in style to the Avett Brothers, and TK and the Holy Know-Nothings, whose spotlight set earlier in the day was ruined by rain. Inclement weather proved a persistent problem throughout the weekend, but the historical environs of the Paramount Theatre where Farm and Fun took place provided both an ideal refuge and a true entertainment extravaganza.
Allison Russell’s set was beautiful, poignant, and inclusive. She began her time on stage by saying "we are a circle - we make up half, you make up half, and together we are complete". The unapologetically authentic artist whose art confronts trauma bares her soul on the stage. Her humility shining through as she sung the praises of each of her chosen sisters joining her on the stage. Allison Russell’s captivating vocals, her lyrics that are more than skin deep, and her elaborate and skilled backing band make them an act you HAVE to see.
It was hardly surprising to find Nickel Creek capping off day two on the State Street Stage, given their storied stature as the belles of bluegrass. Happily, their recent reunion has proved fruitful performance-wise, and Chris Thile in particular look especially delighted to be reunited with Sarah and Sean. He’s the consummate showman and his onstage antics and obvious enthusiasm was clearly contagious. The trio paid particular attention to old and new standards with the song 'Destination', the theme from the romantic drama “Sweet Magnolia” capitalizing on the familiarity factor. Other standout selections of their 21 song set included 'Where the Long Line Leads', 'Ode to a Butterfly', 'This Side' and 'Celebrants'. Rarely does such spectacle come in such a compact combination.
Daniel Donato’s Cosmic Country
Waiting in the pit for Daniel Donato, we struck up a conversation with some of the fans waiting in the front row. ‘Have you seen this kid live? He’s one of the best guitar players I’ve ever seen.’ Naturally our minds went to Billy Strings, and it’s not surprising why.
While the two are very distinct in sound, Daniel is certainly blazing his own path. It was impossible to sit still during Daniel’s heady riffs and Cosmic Country sounds. It’s no surprise why his fans are country fans but that he also appeals to fans of Phish, Gov’t Mule, and the like.
Marty Stuart creates a formidable presence, who, with his carefully cultivated pompadour and smartly tailored western wear, comes across like a classic country legend. So too, his remarkable backing band, The Fabulous Superlatives (Kenny Vaughn on guitar, Chris Scruggs on bass and drummer Harry Stinson) clearly live up to their name in both acumen and image. Besides being the festival’s best dressed bunch, their varied Sunday set — ranging from country classics and jangly countrypolitan to a remarkable rootsy rendition of 'Wipe Out' — demonstrated both ingenuity and agility. Each member of the band took a turn at lead vocals, making for one of the most memorable performances one would witness all weekend.
For more on Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion 2023, see below: