It is that time of year again when I get to go to Bristol to teach and coach at a one week jam camp in conjunction with the Rhythm & Roots Festival (http://lineup.bristolrhythm.com/# ). Bristol considers itself “The Birthplace of Country Music” and the museum (http://www.birthplaceofcountrymusic.org ) there will tell you all about the 1927 sessions with the Carter Family, Jimmy Rodgers, and others throughout the years. Down the street from the radio station and the museum is the Burger Bar where, depending on what version of the story you want to believe, Hank Williams was either found dead in the back of his car when his driver returned with his burger or he declined his last meal. I am not sure it really matters one way or the other which story is correct, but this is a quaint town steeped in early country and bluegrass music. Last year was my first year as part of the teaching team for the Bristol Jam Camp and it has left a lasting and endearing impression on me. Bristol will always be a very special place.
It is difficult to determine where to start to describe Bristol. I know it may be a little old fashioned, but perhaps I will try to start at the beginning. On the drive to Bristol there is an abundance of beautiful mountain scenery and farm land. Interstate 81 goes through Bristol and the scenery is nice from this perspective, however if you venture off onto the old country roads the pace is slower and the value of the view sky rockets. Winding country roads through the mountains with small farming communities in the valleys that are representative of Eastern Tennessee and Western Virginia provide for a calming and peaceful journey to Bristol. It does not matter much which direction you come from; there are mountains, green rolling hills, trees, rivers, and farming communities in all directions. While there are some more modern portions of this small town of about 27,000 full time residents, the festival is in the old down town area with quaint shops, awnings, and old brick buildings lining Main Street. The main street in Bristol is the state line between Virginia and Tennessee. During the festival Main Street is completely closed off to vehicle traffic and it is common to see people getting photos of themselves and friends either straddling the center line with a foot in each state or with friends on either side of the state line. Like most festivals these days, there are several stages set up throughout this old part of town, but the main venue is the Mural Stage which is so titled because of the Jimmy Rogers mural that is painted on the building next to it. During Rhythm & Roots an additional 30-50,000 people descend on Bristol to partake of good music and the other festivities.
In recent years, the Jam Camp has been conducted in The Birthplace of Country Music Museum. It is pretty awe inspiring to walk around during the breaks and see the history and memorabilia while reading about the roots and history of country music. Upstairs is WBCM 100.1 FM Radio Bristol. They still conduct daily broadcasts of both old and new country and bluegrass music. They remain quite busy during the festival broadcasting live performances of artist from their studio as well as some of the headline performances. Downstairs is a recording studio with a small venue for observers adjacent to the gift shop. Last year when we took students in this venue for a class on day one, several paper copy set lists were on the floor and taped to microphone stands left from Russel Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out who had been recording part of an album the night before. It was inspiring for folks who want to learn how to play better together to be in such a place and to have a sense of a connection, however small, with the history and the professionals. The camp starts on Tuesday and concludes on Friday during the festival when all of the students play, sing, and take solo breaks on the Mural Stage. Jam coaches and instructors remain at the festival to facilitate a jam tent throughout the remainder of the festival. It is during this time that one can see the progress folks have made in just a few short days. It is common to see folks who express concerns about their ability to play at all, and certainly not with a group of strangers on day one of the camp, only to find them actively leading songs and sometimes taking a break at the jam tent. It is one of the reasons I enjoy helping people to have fun with music.
Then of course there are the people. You meet all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds at jam camps. Some are more interesting than others, but all want to play music. Some have to be convinced that playing music is fun rather than a drudgery. However, by the end of the week most, if not all, seem to have the idea that everybody is there to have fun playing music together. Most are significantly more comfortable playing music with others or at least they pretend really well if they still have fears. It is particularly pleasing to help folks accomplish their goals and to see them continue to progress over time. Many of the students return to other jam camps where it becomes clear that they have been jamming and practicing the things taught at camp. It is always nice to see them return hungry to learn some more and particularly to have fun playing music together. During Bristol last year, I know I needed to have some fun playing music with others and I am glad there were folks who helped make it a fun time. I suspect this year will be no different; some repeat students and some new ones to encourage. However, old or new, we will have fun playing music.
Then there is the festival itself. Aside from the jam tent where there is always an opportunity to have more fun playing, there are all of the bands to see live. Sure there are also vendors selling all kinds of music related and other items, but there is always something special about seeing groups live. Again, like most festivals, one often has to choose which good band to skip in order to see another as times at various stages overlap. However, it doesn’t really matter which performers you choose; you get to see them live and that is always a good thing. Last year I particularly enjoyed the Steel Drivers, but there were quite a few great performances that I enjoyed at the festival. However, there is a small problem that you might find surprising. I am not a big fan of crowds. I frequently meander around until I hear something I particularly like and try to find a place out of the way to continue to listen and watch without getting engulfed by the crowds. There really is only so much festival that I can take personally before I have to retreat to a place of solitude, but can hopefully still hear good music from a nearby stage. At Bristol last year, I found a bench by a creek that was perfect. Surrounded by grass and shade trees outside of the road blocks and close enough to clearly hear the performers on the Mural Stage, yet void of people because they were all trying to get their chairs in a good spot in front of the stage. Sure, you can’t see the performers but you can hear them. It was on this very bench that I was able to reflect and ponder various things in life while listening to good music and watching the water gently flow down the creek. I will always remember that day in Bristol.
As I get ready to go back to Bristol this year, the memories of this time last year have become more vivid. It was a very good time last year and I look forward to it being even better this year. The Jam Camp has outgrown the facilities available at the museum and has moved to the Jubilee House & Conference Center where there are rooms for some students to stay. This most certainly means there will be more jamming after class. A brief review of the lineup shows that there will be some great performances to see and yes, I remember where my bench is if the crowds become too much. So if you are in the area or are looking for something to do, come on out to Bristol and have some fun. If not for Rhythm & Roots, make it a point to visit some other time. I have been back to Bristol and visited the museum during less busy times as well. There was more time to see everything and it was much more enjoyable than rushing through on breaks between classes. Beautiful countryside, quaint community full of nice people, a local music shop that hosts regular jams, and a lot of information about country music and bluegrass awaits if you ever go to Bristol. Johnny Cash said that “these recordings in Bristol in 1927 are the single most important event in the history of country music.” I recommend you visit and learn a little bit about it if you ever get the chance, festival or not; but then again, I am biased.