Bristol, the border-straddling town that’s half in Tennessee and half in Virginia, will forever be famous as the cradle of the country music business, thanks to some very famous and influential recording sessions in 1927. That event, which introduced the world to The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, The Stonemans and others is being celebrated these days in several ways. A new $11 million Birthplace of Country Music Museum just opened in Bristol. And a new album produced by bluegrass/country superman Carl Jackson features stars like Dolly Parton and Marty Stuart recording new versions of songs captured back then by RCA talent scout Ralph Peer. It’s called Orthophonic Joy, after the so-called Orthophonic Victrola, which was the first high-fidelity record player available to consumers. These appeared in 1925, just in time to help make those Bristol Session recordings sound great to a widening consumer base.
A longer-running and regular riff on the Bristol legacy is the annual Rhythm & Roots Reunion festival, set this year for Sept. 19-21. For the last few years, we at Roots have partnered with R&RR organizers to present a slate of artists on the eve of their Bristol festival dates. This week, that’s what we have in store, and we’ll feature four artists from traditional terrain, ranging from bluegrass to old-time string band.
Show closer Marty Raybon, hailed as one of the finest voices in country music, enjoyed big success with the band Shenandoah in the 1990s and in bluegrass ever since. You may have heard him recently in Miranda Lambert’s new song “Another Sunday In The South” where she not only sings of her love for Raybon’s former band but includes his vocal in the track. But don’t let that obscure the half dozen superb records he’s released on his own since 2001, including The Back Forty last year to mark four decades in country music.
I caught up with Marty over a sputtering cell phone connection from somewhere in Kentucky, where he was gearing up for one of his steady stream of shows. He told me in his rapid-fire, Florida-reared drawl about growing up with a fiddle-playing, bluegrass-loving dad and an early band that included his brothers. Their favorite influences were the great brother bands (NOT to be confused with bro-country, people), chiefly the bridge-building Osborne Brothers. Raybon went to Nashville to seek his dream but wound up realizing it in nearby Muscle Shoals. Some pals had a bar band down there and when they lost their lead singer they asked Marty if he’d like the job for unspectacular but steady money. Raybon recalls that was his “too much week at the end of the money” phase, so he said yes. When the band got cooking, Marty says the legendary Rick Hall (FAME studio) chartered a bus and personally invited everybody at CBS Records in Nashville to come see this band sing. They took the name Shenandoah and took their contemporary sound to the world, where it hit big.
A couple years after Shenandoah broke up in the late 90s, Raybon’s brother Tim coaxed him back to bluegrass, leading to the aptly named Full Circle album, which is where I first tapped into Marty Raybon’s rich, slightly sandy and deeply emotional voice. He’s in that rarified group with singers like Russell Moore, Gene Watson or Vern Gosdin. If you love country singing, you ought to be on the edge of your seat come Wednesday night.
Also on the bill is veteran folk singer and songwriter Ed Snodderly, who absolutely knocked us out during his first appearance on Roots. I’d heard of him widely because of his famous lyrics etched at the top of the Country Music Hall of Fame’s rotunda fountain and because of his relationship with my bass and folk-jazz crossover heroine Missy Raines. They were in a great band together and she records his songs, and they always startle me with their beautiful quirks. Then when Ed played the show, I noted that his fingerstyle guitar had shades of Doc Watson and that “before the set was over he played on dobro and banjo too. And what a gift with words he has, both spoken and sung. Snodderly told lovely, engaging stories and sang lines that layered the poetic over the plainspoken.” All this and he fiddled on camera in O Brother, Where Art Thou? So you want credentials? I’ll show you credentials.
Young man banjo fan Corbin Hayslett experienced some literal Orthophonic Joy after winning a hotly contested prize set up by the R&RR team. Folks were invited to submit a performance video, and by winning Hayslett lands himself a song on that album in some pretty heady company for college-age guy. But it’s not the first contest this “modern minstrel” has won. For some years now he’s been recognized as a premiere performer and educator who is deeply devoted to the traditional music of his region. This could also be said for The Blue Ridge Entertainers, the old-time string duo from Johnson City, TN that rounds out this nicely old-school Roots. Coleman Akin (guitar, fiddle, vocal) and Kris Truelsen (mandolin, guitar, vocal) hooked up in 2013 and fast gained recognition for their energetic and rooted sound. They say to expect specifically East Tennessee fiddle and banjo songs but also blues, jug band and ragtime from across the South.
So I’m forecasting plenty of joy, Orthophonic, stereophonic and generally phonic. Join us in person or through your cutting edge web-o-phonic player.