Ralph Peer captured lightning in a bottle here more than 80 years ago. For the past decade, that bottle has been passed around so that an ever-increasing number of people can take a sip.
The Rhythm & Roots Reunion, a music festival that pays homage to talent scout Peer and the array of traditional music forms he immortalized in those iconic 1927 Bristol Sessions recordings, celebrates its 10th anniversary next weekend.
The festival runs Friday through Sunday in downtown Bristol.
Peer, a New York-based record producer for the Victor Talking Machine Co., spent two weeks that summer painstakingly recording the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, the Stonemans and many others in a dark, stuffy, second-floor, makeshift studio inside a long-gone State Street hat factory.
The end result became the first commercially successful country recordings and ultimately earned the Twin City a congressional designation as the birthplace of country music.
"Our goal is to celebrate and promote our musical heritage as the birthplace of country music and I think we have far exceeded what we thought it [festival] was going to be," festival Executive Director Leah Ross said. "We had around 7,500 that first year and we had 32,000 last year. That's a pretty significant jump."
Bristol Tennessee City Councilman David Shumaker, a founding member of the festival committee, said this year's event should meet or exceed every original expectation.
"This year's festival is the festival we all envisioned in our wildest dreams," Shumaker said. "What we said then was the best we could do, we've got it this year. I don't think any of us envisioned music on 20 stages, but here we are."
While acknowledging that Rhythm & Roots is "all about the music," its creators also set forth some even loftier expectations, said Shumaker, who also serves as this year's festival chairman.
"When we started out, a lot of people said it wouldn't work. They had this hang-dog attitude that we had in Bristol. But we proved them wrong," Shumaker said. "When I was 12 or 13 growing up here, we were ashamed of this hillbilly background. Now we are proud of who we are and are proud of this musical heritage. Nobody else is the birthplace of country music except us, and kids around here now are picking up on that and carrying on."
Over the past decade, Shumaker said he's observed steadily increased attendance by young people in college, high school and now even middle school.
"Kids have grown up going to this festival and moved away, but they still come home for the festival," he said.
Ross said that at least two Tennessee High School class reunions, a wedding, some corporate outings and other social gatherings will coincide with this year's festival.
"Another of our original goals was the reunion aspect – for people to come back to Bristol – and that's worked pretty well," Shumaker said.
True to the music
Organizers said the key to this festival's steady growth has been embracing all of the forms that Peer labeled "hillbilly" music: country, bluegrass, gospel, blues, traditional folk and old-time, as well as later incarnations rock and Americana.
"People have learned there's something here for everyone," Ross said. "Not everyone likes bluegrass or not everyone likes Piedmont blues. What will happen is people will say they don't like bluegrass but then they get to the festival and listen to all the different artists, [and] that mind set changes."
Serving up a musical smorgasbord is also what separates R&R from traditional bluegrass or Americana music festivals, she said.
"The neat thing about Rhythm & Roots is we have something here for people who like hard-core rock," marketing Director Charlene Tipton Baker said. "Guys like Cutthroat Shamrock bring a huge crowd up here from Knoxville. It's basically a rock show with acoustic instruments. When people who think we're just a country or bluegrass festival come and see something like that – with that different kind of energy – they're automatically a fan and want to come back."
Tipton Baker points to the 2003 festival, when organizers began booking some edgier touring bands, such as Acoustic Syndicate and Donna the Buffalo, as the point when fans from outside the five-state region began to take notice.
"People liked that kind of music and those are the people who actually follow a band. That was the kind of audience they [organizers] wanted because they will return every year," Tipton Baker said.
Perhaps coincidentally, many traditional artists also began to expand their horizons about that same time.
"Del McCoury has not changed from traditional bluegrass, but he started touring with Phish and doing Widespread Panic [rock] shows. He can be exactly who he is and see a grandmother, an 8-year-old kid, a dreadlocked hippie in his crowd – and he hasn't changed a thing," Tipton Baker said.
When it comes to this year's lineup, Peer would likely be proud because it personifies that variety.
Start with bluegrass royalty Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, the Del McCoury Band, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Blue Highway, Dale Ann Bradley, Missy Raines & the New Hip, the Gibson Brothers and country crossover Joe Diffie.
Mix in country that spans from traditional to alternative with John Anderson, the Drive-By Truckers, Dale Watson, Larry Cordle and James Hand.
Sharing the stages will be acts as unique as the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Infamous Stringdusters, 18 South, Darrell Scott, Cadillac Sky, Uncle Monk with Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Tommy Ramone, Unknown Hinson, Phil Wiggins & Rick Franklin, Chris Jones & the Night Drivers, Michelle Malone and Red Molly.
"We think the diversity is there, we think talent-wise we've got acts everybody would like to have at their festival," said Larry Gorley, co-chairman of the music committee. "We've got roots music, bluegrass music, country acts, blues, old-time, gospel. In this one festival, there's almost a bluegrass festival by itself. There's enough talent to fill a festival. You get into roots or country and there's enough talent to fill one of those."
Gorley, who helped book acts for the original festival and has co-chaired the music committee for the past four years, said this year's lineup stacks up as the strongest yet.
Artists want to play this event both for the exposure and the chemistry, he said.
"We try to treat the artists like we like to be treated. We try to give them a good stage and good sound. And the fans can get up close so the artists can see the fan response," Gorley said. "At some events, you can hardly tell who is on stage. At Rhythm & Roots, you can see them break a string, you can see them harmonize and you know what's going on. The artists can see the fan response and play to those folks. The artists feed off the crowd and the fans feed off the artists."
Just as they did 10 years ago, musicians from East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia occupy an impressive number of slots in the lineup – one more nod to Peer, who learned through Pop Stoneman that this corner of Appalachia was then and remains thick with talented musicians ripe for the picking.
"We've had a lot of people tell us they come here and there's a lot of artists they'd never heard of – but they knew they would go away a new fan of somebody they would start following," Ross said.
Bristol's previous attempts at establishing any kind of annual festival, such as Kingsport's FunFest, failed to attract or hold community interest and financial support.
"We had festivals before, with Autumn Chase and RaceFest, but those sponsorship dollars weren't there. If we hadn't had the cities and those select few sponsors that came in those first couple of years to build this, it couldn't have grown," Ross said.
To get that initial festival off the ground, both Bristol governments contributed $25,000 and King Pharmaceuticals gave $25,000. A core group of area businesses gave smaller gifts and donated products or services, Shumaker said.
What they got, in October 2001, was about 40 artists and a three-day crowd generously estimated at 7,500. Attendance was relatively light Friday and Sunday, which were days primarily geared toward children and gospel music, respectively. The largest crowds came out Saturday afternoon.
The original headliners included Jeanette Williams, the Lewis Family, Wayne Henderson, Ralph Blizard and David Massengill.
Acts performed on three outdoor stages and inside the Paramount and Cameo theaters, Java J's coffee shop and the Bristol train station. In its infancy, the festival also staged some performances at Cumberland Square Park and Anderson Park.
This year, during the festival's three days and nights, 187 different acts are scheduled to perform on 22 indoor and outdoor stages, all within a five-block downtown area. And the operating budget, 10 years later, has swollen tenfold to $750,000.
Supporters now include the Tennessee and Virginia arts commissions, both state departments of tourism, the National Endowment for the Arts and dozens of regional businesses and colleges.
"Our sponsorship giving is probably up 15 percent this year [over last] in some tough economic times. I think it speaks very highly of how our community has taken ownership of this festival," Ross said. "That first year, the cities were our biggest supporters. This year, we've got 25 sponsors that were with us that first year."
Rhythm & Roots has been financially solvent since the beginning, Shumaker said.
Once an all-volunteer effort, the festival now employs a full-time director and two paid part-time staff members.
But unpaid volunteers remain the key to the event's success, Ross said. While about 50 volunteers were enough to sell tickets, help with security and hospitality for the original festival, about 1,000 volunteers will be required to help this year's three-day event run smoothly.
Music fans from 26 states, Canada, Great Britain, France, Australia, Sweden and other foreign countries have already purchased tickets and will soon be making their way to the Twin City, Ross said.
"We had 32,000 last year and I would be surprised if we don't have at least that many or maybe more," Ross said.
While not a NASCAR-sized crowd, it still translates into busy hotels, restaurants, convenience and retail stores, Shumaker said.
"This festival has had a huge impact on downtown. For the [downtown] restaurants, this is their busy weekend each year, not race weekend," Shumaker said. "The hotels at [Interstate 81's] Exit 7 are booked and the campground at Sugar Hollow is booked."
The festival also gets credit for supporting and promoting more live downtown musical performances throughout the year, Shumaker said.
The festival has formed an alliance with Believe in Bristol, the Birthplace of Country Music Alliance and other agencies to promote a regional concert series.
"I go to tourism conferences and there is no community or no municipality that supports an event like ours. I go to places and talk about festivals and the No. 1 question is, "How do you get your city leaders to support you?' Maybe it's they need to believe in the product," Ross said. "Towns, cities that truly understand the value of travel and tourism, are the ones that are going to survive, especially in tough economic times."
As the festival has grown, so have associated activities, Ross said. A Saturday morning 5K run that once attracted 50 is expected to draw about 600. Children's day activities Saturday morning have grown from a few hundred to an estimated 4,000 last year.
From the thousands of bottles of water that performers and volunteers will consume to the number of portable toilets placed throughout downtown , this festival is shaping up to be the largest ever.
With its first decade all but in the books, organizers said they want to carefully manage the event going forward – given the finite amount of space to accommodate large crowds in the downtown area – but not stifle success and support.
"We talk about that periodically – what to do if our crowds continue to grow. We hope next year to move the Piedmont stage back toward the library. That would open that area up some," Ross said. "When we moved the State Street stage back from near the Paramount to the block where Tri-Summit Bank is, it really opened up that area for the number of folks we could accommodate. Turning the country mural stage around opened up that area."
Organizers have discussed shifting the mural stage to the middle of State Street, but that area lacks the open space found at the opposite end, Ross said.
"We've talked about moving the kids' day off-site, maybe to Cumberland Square Park, but I think it would take away from it being part of the festival," Ross said.
In its earliest years, the festival scheduled performances at both Cumberland Square and Anderson parks, but attendance was spotty and attendees complained about the walking distance from State Street. Organizers also have discussed using the Virginia park again, but that creates logistical issues, Ross said.
"The problem when you get out of the boundaries of downtown is how do you control ticketing? Those are things we've talked about," she said.
Shumaker said including the parks again doesn't seem a viable option.
"I don't know how much bigger we want to get or can get," Shumaker said. "It's about the music. It's about putting on the best festival in the world – in my opinion – and certainly the best at this price."
They've also discussed reducing the number of artists, Ross said, but have already received numerous inquiries from top-name acts who are leaving the third weekend of September open on their calendars until contracts for the 2011 festival are released.
In the meantime, the festival's 12-member music committee will be busy next weekend gauging crowd response to 2010 acts and looking toward the future because work on the 2011 festival is already beginning.
"We're trying to get the acts people will enjoy by keeping our finger on the pulse of the music, if not staying one step ahead," Gorley said.
Performances begin at 5 p.m. Friday and continue until midnight. Saturday begins with children's day at 9 a.m. and the last chord of the day likely won't be struck until early Sunday. Sunday activities include worship services and music starting at noon.
On the Web: www.bristolrhythm.com
Rhythm & Roots Reunion
When: Friday-Sunday, Sept. 17-19
Where: Downtown Bristol
Cost: $40 for an adult weekend pass, $25 for an individual ticket Friday, $30 for an individual ticket Saturday and $15 for Sunday admission.