The boys in Holy Ghost Tent Revival turned me on to Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion two springs ago, when I was hanging out in the studio with them. “It’s great,” they said. “You should go.” A couple of months later, Josh Daniel from the New Familiars told me the same thing. Last August, Ian Thomas, who’s not in this year’s line-up much to my dismay, told me to stay at exit 278. Or something like that, I can’t remember now. So shep. and I considered the reasonable ticket price — $40 for a weekend pass, cheaper if you buy before the end of July, which we never manage — and the reasonable lodging prices ($130 split a couple of ways, for two nights, if you are willing to call a million places), and we took Azula the Little Red Toyota Of Doom up to the Tennessee/Virginia border last September for something other than a car race. (Who knew they had anything in Bristol besides car races? Not me! They also have a rookie league baseball team.)
It’s not the most high-profile nor the most famous roots music festival in the States; but I don’t think it really needs to be. I think the devotion, of the people who know about Bristol, to the festival is what makes it great. The devotion of the musicians, too — last year I saw plenty of performers standing at stage’s edge, watching other bands perform. (The most surreal moment: turning my head during Holy Ghost Tent Revival’s Friday night mainstage set to see Jason Isbell — who followed them, and who did not draw half as well as they did — standing on the side of the stage, watching them raptly. Talk about trippy.) The whole weekend is run with a military precision, food is plentifully available (so is beer), everyone understands that the Tennessee/Florida game must be watched on Saturday afternoon, and the port-a-potties were as tolerably decent as going to the bathroom in a small portable box ever is. In short: this year’s Reunion is one of the things I’ve been most looking forward to since last year’s finished, and behind the jump, I’m going to give you some of the musical reasons why.