As a native of Appalachia and a beneficiary to its artistic heritage, the annual Rhythm and Roots Reunion festival in Bristol has always been, for me, a sort of culturally consummating event. Here, some of the greatest and most influential performers, writers, and musicians gather annually in an exhibition that is both astounding and wholly enjoyable. So, as you can imagine, when I received word that I would have the gracious opportunity to be a festival performer, I was ecstatic. This year, I was a part of two groups that had secured spots in the festival lineup and spent the hot September weekend (probably the last of its nature for the year) making music in the Bristol streets. As it was, I had a most pleasurable few days drawing a three-day long check on “things to do before I die” list, and sure, the little boost of the ego wasn’t so bad either, but what I learned from this year’s Rhythm and Roots Reunion far surpassed a surface level good old time. By way of this opportunity, I quickly found that I had stumbled upon a viewpoint, clear as the late summer sky, that gave me a direct look into the heart of our region’s soul. The mere conversations that I overheard at this present mecca of folk society were enough to keep me wanting to stay tucked away in the green room all weekend. Arriving at the festival, I made my rookie mistakes: trying to check in at a ticket gate, driving my van full of equipment into the reserved police parking area, asking a volunteer lady in hospitality, “um, uh, is the food free or how much do I owe you?”, all of this among other such follies. I was most certainly a spectacle if anyone happened to be watching me. Thusly, and not without having flashbacks of being the new kid at my old middle school, I shuffled into the artist’s green room in the old state line train station, guitar in hand. I duly found a table and some water, and sat alone taking in everything that was around me. A bit too unfamiliar to start a dialogue of my own, I sat contently to observe on everything around me. I picked up on so much by simply listening to and taking in what I heard. Soon, one of my bandmates showed up, and I set to following him around the room, as he was a bit braver than I. He had played the festival before, and as such, ran into various people he knew. I tagged along, opening my ears to anything I could learn from these marvelous spirits around me. One such spirited chat that made an impression on me was with Tom Pryor, guitarist and pedal steel player for groups such as The Black Lillies, The Everybodyfields, and Sam Quinn + the Japan Ten. I had the pleasure of catching his set with the Black Lillies at the Cameo, and had the esteemed honor of hearing Tom talk afterwards in the old train station on the state line. More than anything he said really, Tom gave off a sort of atmosphere that I had never encountered before in a person. His presence alone gave me something from which to learn. His vibe was matured and fresh, weary and risky, felt like a dark green and beige and brilliant white, flipped away by a looking past of all colors entirely. It honestly felt like home. Tom expressed to his green room listeners that he was an individual who had little use for words; instead, he spoke through his music: every note a most descriptive adjective, every solo a most essential adventure into a stream of consciousness. Most eminently, I thought, he said without any sort of contrived notion or grandeur, “Every chance I get to work is a chance to live.” To live, honestly and passionately, I thought then, must be my new goal, my new big empty box on my “things to do before I die” list. Sure, it is a daunting little empty box, especially for my list that flickers in comparison. However, it is one such box that I, with every genuine breath, strive to fill with a lifelong check.
Living in the Roots
October 20, 2010