Posted by: Necci – Sep 28, 2012
The motel room was dead, to begin with. Before Billy Joe Shaver changed my life, before the spastic arrangement of musical experiences that comprised the weekend, before the festival’s entourage of zombie-drunk fans pacing back and forth across the state line at the end of each night, and long before the Convulsing Hippie. It was certainly dying when I reserved it; the accumulations of ten years’ stale smoke and stink-bug magnetism hanging like draperies upon everything. All shades of tar and reasons to die--to check out, as it were. But I knew it was dead the moment I checked in.
At the end of an eight hour drive, my girlfriend Stacy and I arrive shortly after the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion commenced. We quickly find ourselves in the Waiting Place, standing on the side of the road, in line for an official shuttle bus that never shows. We end up hitching a ride with the motel manager’s husband--nice guy.
By the time we make it through the gates, it's dusk, and I'm immediately confronted with the realization that attempting to keep any kind of schedule would be completely futile. There are 23 stages with over 150 bands, and every inch of downtown Bristol is packed with excitable country, Americana, and bluegrass fans on a mission to get… wherever. The street is lined with EZ-ups selling all sorts of arts, crafts, consumables, instruments, t-shirts, cowboy hats, handmade dresses, heritage pamphlets, and charities, with rogue performers squeezed in and sawing fiddles fervently between. I want to stop every few feet to listen, but never quite in the spot where the crowd forces me to a halt. After asking around fruitlessly about how to find the tent where James Justin & Co is playing, we give up and decide to find a beer. Of course, we then walk right into the tent where the band is playing.
James Justin & Co are fantastic, and I couldn’t be happier to have them kick off my weekend. A soulful Americana act with old-time instrumentation and a vaguely indie sensibility, James’ voice rounds out their somewhat complex identity with a hypnotic allure. We stay for a few songs, and I'm loving it, but I’ve seen them at The Camel more than once, and curiosity about the unknown virtuosity that surrounds me is mounting.
We head to O’Mainnin’s, the local bar unfortunate enough to have hosted our stopover last summer in the quaint, historic, Tennessee-Virginia border town of Bristol. Vaguely recalling a sandy, tiki-bar area out back, we push through the smoke (it’s Tennessee) and regulars, and stop short.
On stage was exactly what I didn’t know I was hoping for. The band's name is Time Sawyer, which, given the various shades of Southern accent present, is hilariously ambiguous. To glance at them, you’d expect traditional country; lap steel, banjo, guitar, upright bass, and drums. Their sound, however, is more a crossroads between early Jeff Tweedy, Uncle Tupelo alt-country, and modern indie-Americana superstars like Mumford and Sons and The Head and The Heart. Their songwriting is charismatic, and they are all technically capable musicians, but the drums are miked and the steel ride is barely audible, which is almost tragic.
By the end of the set I’ve decided to interview the frontman, Sam Taylor, but he vanishes back stage, never to return. I hunt him down on a porta-potty side street, and so it is to the arrhythmia of slamming john doors that I snag my first interview.
Where did y’all come from? Where do you fit in musically?
It’s hard to place it. We kinda all fell together. We started out with just two guitars, and it grew from there. It was really cool having the banjo come in. It’s been really fun to watch it grow. We were born in the foothills of North Carolina, and we moved to Charlotte. We’ve been together about 2 and a half years, and we have three albums out.
There’s one question that’s been plaguing me since I made the decision to come, and it’s grown into an obsessive contemplation: With indie rock bands from New York playing banjos, Australian country stars on the cover of People Magazine, and bluegrass bands from California touring the country, is there such thing as Southern music anymore? If so, what makes it Southern? Or has everything we've associated with Southern music been absorbed into our national sonic vernacular, part of the American identity? If it doesn't have to be from the South, what makes it Southern?
Of course, I don’t quite articulate all of this.
Do you see your music as particularly Southern? Or do you think that there actually is Southern music anymore?
Oh, there’s definitely Southern music. But when I think of Southern music... I think, when you ask if it’s still left, you think of bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, or the Allman Brothers. But I think yeah, it can be Southern if you want it to be. Music is how you perceive it. I think we've definitely got some Southern to us, Bluegrass especially.
I don’t get to go as deeply into the question as I’d like, but given the (literally) shitty location of the interview, I cut the thing short. Besides, I like his sort of existential view on Southern identity, and it gives me something to think about on the slow trudge down State Street to see Billy Joe Shaver--a show I'll never come back from.
My first thought is that I’m seeing a holy man, a legend, a prophet imbued with divine inspiration. I am not a religious man, but this is someone who radiates light and music, an ancient Texan who carries songs of unbelievable, undeniable honesty in his very being. His voice is like a worn highway through the holy land, and his melodies shine in ways that make the spotlights feel supernatural. I am elevated; I am acquainting myself with the very pulse of life.
I’m gonna live forever,
I’m gonna cross that river,
I’m gonna catch tomorrow now.
You’re gonna wanna hold me
Just like I’ve always told you,
You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone.
The guitars wrap around his words while he stands, arms outstretched, effortlessly singing the scratchy psalms of his existence. He is at once religious conviction and openhearted acceptance. There is sorrow deeper than my own years have scraped upon in the lines around his eyes, and something ecstatic behind them.
Nobody here will ever find me,
But I will always be around.
Just like the songs I leave behind me,
I’m gonna live forever now.
I feel them before they arrive--tears that have only ever come from finding something greater than poetry and sound in music. God’s tears. Tears that seep from the patterns of cracks in my own desolation, from the experience of the great, tragic, transient, everlasting, Common Something. The universal howl, the honey and salt of emotion. They are the reason I fell for music, the reason I write music, the reason I treasure so deeply those songs that place gently calloused fingers upon the tight coiled strings of my identity.
You fathers and you mothers,
Be good to one another,
Please try to raise your children right.
Don’t let the darkness take ‘em,
Don’t make ‘em feel forsaken,
Just lead ‘em safely to the light.
This is what I’ve always been looking for. These are melodies I have known since before I was born. This is the sound of the afterlife, the sun catching endless autumns in the trees of deep Virginia hills, the first steps upon new paths, the quiet love we make to our own mistakes as we let them go into the past. This is the haunting voice of my conscience, my silent awe of still rivers in the moonlight. The old man and the child that reside within us, the soft song of a girl discovering love.
When this old world is blown asunder,
And all the stars fall from the sky,
Remember someone really loves you,
We’ll live forever, you and I.
This is the heart of Southern music. The answer to my question. The thing that has always flowed innocuously behind the diluted pulp peddled to the people as authentic. This is the True Sound, something that exists for the sake of existing. Something I should have remembered. A voice I've always known and never heard. The eternal truth of music as transcendental medium. That’s what it’s always been. How did I ever forget?
I’m gonna live forever,
I’m gonna cross that river,
I’m gonna catch tomorrow now.
I’m gonna live forever now.
I’m gonna live forever now.
The show ends with me breathless and tear streaked. We go to a bar. We wake up on Saturday.
I’m not hungover, but I fill the ice bucket anyway. Then I make coffee, light a cigarette, and put on a Billy Joe Shaver tune. Glancing at the schedule for the day, I quickly stuff it away. I’m in for the ride today. We get through the gates around 1 PM.
Our first stop is for barbecue at the Smokey MTN barbecue stand. They’re set up outside a megalithic pool hall, Borderline Billiards, and we push our way in. The pork is perfectly cooked, if a bit heavy on the hickory flavor, but paired with a Wolf Hills IPA from nearby Abington, VA, it’s the perfect festival breakfast. The Southern rock band on stage breaks into a raucous rendition of a Skynyrd song, and I can already tell the day will be a frantic, inspired flirtation with insanity.
Slugging the rest of my forcefully hop-laden beer, we shuffle out into the fray, and right into the path of some friends from my days at The Camel in Richmond. My first thought is that I’m fucked. You see, I drink. A lot. But my hard boozing ways have been significantly tranquilized since I left the River City last January. No good can come from being confronted with the expectations of debauchery I so consummately cultivated in my blurry past life.
As it turns out, my buddy is already trashed, his girlfriend acting as navigator, his welted eyes wisely concealed behind wraparound shades and the low shadow of a camouflage Hardywood Park Brewery hat. They’re on their way to catch a band called Loves It at the O’Mainnin’s tiki bar, or so I gather from the slur and translation of the couple. Are we in? Why not? The schedule is staying in the program, and anyway I’m ready to party in earnest.
I’ve never wanted to describe a band as flirtatious before, but Loves It demands the adjective. And not in a condescending or demeaning way. These are true artists, versed in old timey traditions, who have eschewed the standard hopeless sinner redemption paradigm so prevalent amongst modern traditionalists (and of which I am a big fan, to be clear). Traditionalists they are not.
A trio comprised of a female vocalist with a seductively innocent, 1920’s singing style who plays guitar, a male vocalist with the kind of clear, woodsy voice everybody secretly wishes they had on guitar and banjo, and an upright bassist, they feel well curated. Their energy is unassailably inviting, their musicianship ripe with a technical authenticity, and their creative voice completely original. Shuck your pretensions and find these guys. They feel like drinking whiskey in a ball pit while making googly eyes at your first crush, and it’s fucking awesome.
It’s halfway through their set when my buddy stops dancing by the stage, turns around, and falls face first into his chair, sending his beer and belongings scattering across the sand. “Holy fucking shit man, eat something! We’ve got a lot of drinking to do.” But it’s too late. His saint of a girlfriend is carting him out one step ahead of the bouncers. Poor bastard, I think, with more than a hint of sympathy founded on personal experience. We stick out the show, and this time I get my interview back stage, over beers. The way it should be.
I talk with vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Vaughn Walters of Loves It. He immediately tells me he’s from Austin, as everyone from there tends to do. He and Jenny were both hard touring musicians for other bands when they met, but started Loves It as a side project. When her band broke up, Walters quit his, and their two person act stepped off the sidelines, playing over 150 shows since December. The bass player, it turns out, started yesterday.
I ask him if he considers their rather peculiar act to be traditionalist at all.
I don’t think we’re very traditional. At all, even. I love old country music, and I listen to that a lot of the time, but this is the least traditional band I’ve been in. We play acoustic instruments, but besides that, I don’t think it’s very traditional. Especially Kurt, the bass player. He’s a classical bassist and a noise musician. So we recruited him for this roots band because we didn’t want someone who was really straight. We wanted to make something new.
We get off track and chat in excited tangential loops about obscure artists for awhile before I remember I’m supposed to actually be interviewing the guy. So I throw him the question I knew I would:
Does Southern music exist?
Wow, that’s a really nice question, man. I think if you listen to Nashville country, there’s some guy, and he’s probably from like, Michigan, and he’s singing in the thickest country drawl, and there’s people from the South who are playing in punk bands. I think Southern music still exists, and I really love the South, and the music from here. But I think, with technology now, you could be from anywhere, and doin' any kind of music. Whatever you’re into, that influences who you are as a musician, and ultimately the way you perform.
Wow. So do you think country music, as a blanket genre, is less niche then it used to be? Do you think it’s making its way into a more mainstream identity?
Oh yeah man. Definitely. I mean, look at the guy from Hootie and The Blowfish, Darius Rucker, he does country. And the guy from Staind does country now. I think country is huge. I don’t know how it is internationally or anything, but even you could say Mumford and Sons has some type of country thing going on. Darius Rucker to Mumford and Sons. It’s all under this Americana blanket right now.
So how do you feel about it? Do you think it’s a co-opting of an identity, or an expansion thereof?
I love roots music so much, I’m glad that people are doing it more. I think it’s so sweet. I’m not a hater like that. If some guy can make a buck in Nashville, singin' some sloppy bullshit, more power to him. I’m not going to be the one to hate ‘em, even if it’s not my bag all the time. There’s a lot of great shit comin’ from that town, of all types. But maybe that’s just a typical Austin thing to say.
I thank Vaughn and shake his hand, suddenly conscious that I’m a bit tipsy. My beer cup is empty. It was full when we started the interview 8 minutes ago. Time to go.
As we barge back out into the swirling current of human turbulence, I try to fix my mind on an image of what this thing is. Who are these people? Certainly not the same crowd you’d find at an arena country show, but neither are they the swell of crunchy hippies and opportunistic drug spewing tree thuggers who hang around the parking lots of bad, bluegrassy jam bands. A volatile mix of healthy families and Dixie cup stumblers in completely nondescript dress, dotted with ageing bluegrassers, honky-tonk heroes, local high school kids, businessmen never off the clock, endless photographers strapped to technology, mountain men frailin' open back banjos, couples dressed for upward mobility sipping pink cocktails and looking at no one, farmers with sunspots and overalls. Accents from Texas, from Carolina, Tennessee, central Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, and Bristol. Camouflage, tie die, cowboy shirts and slacks. Sinners and gospel singers. Southern rockers, barn burners, indie acoustic pickers, lap steels, hand drums, and rockabilly renegades.
One might get the feeling that this is all spontaneous if it weren't obviously so well planned. There is a sense that all of these people came here because that’s what we do. They do it without the need to affirm some micro-subcultural identity. They do it without esoteric lingo or the hip-to-that elitism of so many niche events. They do it without pomp. Bristol Rhythm and Roots is not about being part of a subculture, but about being part of a culture. And that sets it apart from every festival experience I've ever had. One part bluegrass festival, one part bar crawl, and one part county fair, this is the ritual of heritage, a benevolent chalk scribbling on the walls of music history, a celebration of all things new and traditional. This is the Great American South holding the door open to the world, shouting “come on in, y’all!” over the frantic fiddles barreling out like a crowd from a theater fire. Bristol is the birthplace of country music, and still, it seems, the heart of the thing. No matter how broadly the styles inherent to this region may roam, they will always be here, where they always have been. And nobody appears reluctant to share them.
Suddenly, I need rest. So does Stacy. The rush of people and sounds and food smoke has become overwhelming. We make our way back to O’Mainnin’s, but this time head straight for the quiet, upstairs bar, where what appears to be the bizarro cousin of a good friend from back in Mathews is playing guitar softly on stage. We sit down with cocktails and talk about the day. Then we take shots. I turn and scribble on a piece of scrap paper:
It's gotten to whiskey at 6 PM in a dingy upstairs barroom on the Tennessee side of the street. No comin' back from this. The ride is at full tilt and I can’t focus on the fucking ground.
We stumble back out into the dusk. Our Richmond friends are revived and ready to party. No good can come from this.
Time lapses and we find ourselves being dragged to see Dr. Dog. I acquiesce, if only because a buddy of mine is introducing the band. I don’t like them. At all. Keep an open mind, I tell myself, as we push into a tidal swarm of a younger, more stoned crowd than I've been used to this weekend. They launch into their first jammy whirlwind of a song. Then their second. People are dancing like stroked out skeletons with hair. I overhear the word “brah” a lot. I walk to the side of the stage and smoke, say hi to my buddy across the backstage fence, and try to stomach another song. I can’t. As we’re walking away, I start getting angry.
“What the everloving fuck was that? Seriously? What the hell did that have to do with anything? What, throw the jam scene a bone for putting up with actual fucking music, with actual meaning, and lyrics, and melody all weekend? To hell with that! That’s not music, it’s self indulgent crap! There’s no soul in that! This festival is better than that! Bristol is fucking better than that! BRISTOL, YOU’RE BETTER THAN THAT SHIT!”
I’m shouting. We’re both shouting. It occurs to me there are police nearby. We stop.
We get a late start. My head feels like it spent the night bouncing on a diesel engine. My voice is almost gone. We make it to the gates around 2:30. We meet up with our friends, and for the first time, we’re all reasonably sober. I’m scarfing a fried green tomato and bacon sandwich when a clawhammer banjo catches my ear. Across the street, the Roan Mountain Moonshiners are playing some of the most authentic old time jug band tunes I’ve heard all weekend. I’m getting a little giddy. We watch for a few songs and head off to see Girls Guns and Glory.
As soon as we’re in the tent, I’m dancing. Embarrassingly. I’m not a big rockabilly fan, but these guys are shredding so hard, playing with such ferocity and dedication, that their enthusiasm for their music is contagious. It helps that they look like they just stepped off some 1950’s drag strip. At some point, we all start sweating, and decide to grab a drink.
We get to the bar, and they’re not playing the Skins game. I drag Stacy to every bar in town. No luck. We meander down the street aimlessly, stopping to look at expensive instruments, handmade crafts, and listen to the occasional street performer. The energy is dying down. The event ends early tonight. There’s really only one more act to see, and that is the Sam Bush Band.
We carve out a space in the beer garden to the side of the stage, and grab a couple Starr Hill Northern Lights. I’m a little apprehensive about this show. I’ve never seen Sam Bush before, and while my bluegrass obsessed, mandolin pickin’ coworker tells me he’ll change my life, I’m a worried he’ll be too “nu-grassy” for my tastes.
They start playing and I grab my phone:
“Hey! Get your asses down to State Street! Sam Bush Band. My god, this stuff is amazing.”
They play fast, technical bluegrass, but they do so with feeling. They are the rare musicians good enough at what they do to play incredibly complex parts while still imbuing their songs with emotion. It feels inspired, not studied, and that is one of the greatest compliments I can bestow upon a band. I understand why the man is a legend, and why he has the headlining spot of the festival. The appeal of this music is wide, but not in a way that compromises its soul. It’s just… really damn good. And most people, despite whatever various prejudices they might carry, are smart enough to recognize really damn good when it’s in front of them. The crowd is loud, and dancing, and every person I look at is smiling. Seriously. Never miss a chance to see them.
We leave with our friends, walking out under the staggering “Bristol VA/Tenn: A Good Place To Live” sign towards their car. And that’s when I see Ace. Ace is one of the greatest, most unknown songwriters in Richmond, and a regular at The Camel, where I’ve personally kicked him out several times for showing up too drunk. Never a hard feeling for the guy though. Short, balding, bearded, he has a constant expression of consternation that only seems to break for two things: laughter, and music. He’s the guy that’ll sit crosslegged in front of the stage, PBR in hand, eyes closed, and just completely lose himself in it. It doesn’t even matter what kind of music it is. He would never stop to ask douchey questions about the meaning of Southern music; it’s music, man. The man loves music more than anyone I’ve ever known. Even myself. Just don’t talk too much on stage. PLAY SOME FUCKIN MUSIC, MAN!
I haven’t seen the guy in forever, and our greeting is lengthy. With him are two decidedly young, fairly innocent looking hippies. One has long hair and a tie-dyed shirt with a huge leather knife holster around his hip. The other has long hair and no idea what is going on. We pile into a compact car and head towards our hotel room.
It’s full of smoke. My guitar is getting passed around like a joint. We’re all singing. There are two magnums of champagne, two cases of cheap beer, and several 40oz malt liquor bottles rising like turrets all around. Laughter blurs into song and back again. The worn carpet tilts slightly up, then back down. The hippie without the knife is freaking out. I go over and try to talk some cosmic sense into the psychonaut, but he’s too far gone, and when he reaches out his hand to shake mine, his whole body starts convulsing like I’m made of electric fencing. I pull my hand away and he collapses, staring at the ceiling with a vague expression on his face like he’s seeing god, still flapping around like a fish on the bottom of some metaphysical rowboat. Well… this can’t be good.
The motel room is dead. Every remotely flat surface and most of the floor is covered in empty beer bottles, crumpled cigarette packs, full ashtrays, gas station food wrappers, and discarded clothing. There are sleeping bodies on the spare bed, draped over the side like dirty laundry, and curled up under bath towels by the door. Quiet heaps rising and falling in the afterglow of relentless tobacco and drink. I stumble to the window and stick my head out. This isn’t good. And where did the hippies come from? Then it all comes back.
One by one, they wake up, variously lighting cigarettes, polishing off the dregs of last night’s malt liquor, and generally stumbling around with that pained, oh shit half-smile endemic to the chronically hungover. Stacy gets us coffee and Gatorade. We have a long drive. So do our Richmond friends.
“Shit, Ace, feels like we musta done something right.” I manage to rasp out.
“Hells yeah, man. Good people.” He smiles.
“We gotta get up sometime, next time I’m in Richmond.”
“Yeah, well, I think I’m gonna stay.” Vaguely, I recall him mentioning considering this the night before. I thought he was just speaking drunk.
“Really, man? You’re gonna stay? You’re gonna do it?”
“Well yeah. I mean, everything I have is in my backpack, and that’s right here, so, ya know, why not?” We both laugh.
“Wow. I’m a little jealous. Listen man, you take care. And have a great time. This is a cool town. Maybe you’ll see me down here sometime. Never know. Oh, and play some fucking music, man!”
In the parking lot everyone exchanges weary farewells. The weekend is over. Vacation has ended. It’s time to go home.
As we’re pulling out of the motel parking lot, I see Ace, walking south down a road on the outskirts of Bristol, Convulsing Hippie and his semi-armed companion by his side, his life stuffed in a backpack, heading downtown, towards the birthplace of country music. A piece of Richmond, strolling off towards Tennessee on foot. It’s a perfect Hunter S. Thompson moment: “There he goes. One of God’s own prototypes. Some kind of high powered mutant never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, too rare to die.”
We turn the radio up, roll the windows down, light a cigarette, and pull off in the opposite direction, sad to leave and knowing we’ll be back. Smiling to know that I wasn't the only one who found a part of myself in a small town on the border of Tennessee. We veer onto the highway, just another car full of fiddle songs, in the hills somewhere down South.
Words and Images by S. Preston Duncan