*** Published Sunday, Sept 19 in the Bristol Herald Courier. ***
Dale Ann Bradley opened the gray backstage door of the Paramount on Friday night, walked in, stepped around a stray instrument or two, and smiled.
Already inside, Infamous Stringdusters guitarist Andy Falco set aside his guitar, walked over to Bradley and gave her a good country hug.
So it went and so it goes beyond the crowds, backstage and aboard the buses at the 10th Annual Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion in downtown Bristol.
"This is the best festival in the Southeastern zone by far," Jesse Cobb, who plays mandolin in the Infamous Stringdusters, said moments after the band's hour-long and lightning-strong set at the Paramount. "It's like Bristol has always been: They love music. This town gets it."
Crowds at Rhythm & Roots typically will love a performer. When performers love them back, the crowd just falls for them even more.
"That's what I feel from it," Cobb said. "We're kind of a bluegrass rockin' band. I think we must be doing something right here."
Ditto Del McCoury.
At the Virginia Folklife Stage several hours before the Infamous Stringdusters slay a packed Paramount crowd, the Del McCoury Band, atypically attired in shorts and Hawaiian shirts, played music and answered questions from an adoring crowd during what was billed as a workshop.
But when McCoury's high and winsome whine navigated Johnny Bond's "I Wonder Where You are Tonight" nary a head seemed to look away from the music master. Call it good times classified.
Stroll back to the Paramount.
As the Infamous Stringdusters loaded their equipment for a drive to Ashville, N.C., Dale Ann Bradley, Steve Gulley and Kim Fox settled into their seats on the stage.
And backstage, bluegrass band Cadillac Sky was preparing their bevy of instruments to follow Bradley and Co.
That's when Gulley brought the crowd – those in the seats as well as the artists backstage – to a collective hush with George Jones' "The Door." Directly behind the stage's large black curtain, one Cadillac Sky band member grinned to another and said, "Wow!"
Wow indeed. Steve Gulley stands as one of the most underrated voices in all of music today.
Meanwhile just beyond the glow of the Burger Bar's neon sign, a laid-back Todd Snider readied for his show on the Piedmont stage. Night had fallen. A large crowd had gathered, from which murmurs grew gradually from whispers to whoops and squalls.
Snider walked from the dark, along a makeshift white picket fence, and climbed on stage. With a ragtag cowboy hat on his head, frumpy brown pants and mismatched vest, he picked up his black guitar, walked to the microphone and grinned.
Snider rollicked through a set that included a superb "The Ballad of Cape Henry." Bare of feet yet not bare of thought, Snider's signature drunken, half-sleepy voice lent an added level of poignancy to such songs as "I was Looking for a Job."
Meantime over on the Tennessee side of Bristol, country rebel Dale Watson squeezed onto the bandstand at O'Mainnin's stage, set up just out its back door.
Watson rumbled that tiny stage. Dressed like the suave hep cat he is, in a freight-train black suit and turquoise shirt, the silver-haired Watson honked and tonked through a set that included Merle Haggard's "Ramblin' Fever" and his own irreverent classic "Nashville Rash."
Missed it? You missed out, unless you caught Watson on Saturday night.
Hours beforehand, Watson sat on his maroon bus and spoke on topics ranging from Bristol and Rhythm & Roots to the Carter Family and Johnny Cash. Native American art etched into mirrors ran throughout the bus, about which a story exists.
"This bus was owned by Ray Price, the Cherokee Cowboy," Watson said as he offered a tour of his ride. "It's pretty cool owning the bus that one of country music's greatest singers once owned."
Cool describes Watson.
But get one thing right. Watson does not rock. He honks. He calls his music countrypolitan, a style that honors and exhibits country music's rich past. Maybe that explains why he fell in love with Bristol this weekend.
Rhythm & Roots and Bristol "has a great vibe to it," Watson said while sipping on coffee, the sun shining through his window to brighten his silver hair. "A lot of great music. I just walked through the crowd and heard it. Even the street musicians sound great here."
Then a thought occurred to the singer with a baritone as deep as Texas. He looked out the window and asked about the location where the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and Ernest "Pop" Stoneman recorded in 1927.
Pointing a tattooed arm in the direction, Watson asked, "Right there?"
Yep, right there.
"I was telling the guys, see that sign (the Bristol sign), hear that music, this whole place beams integrity," Watson said. "It's a vortex. You can't help but get the feeling."
Then Watson led the way into the back of his bus and into his lounge. He sat down, picked up his European coin-encrusted guitar, and looked up.
Bristol was on his mind.
"This is the way it ought to be," Watson said.