Bristol - A Good Place to Live

It’s Thursday morning and we’re tired. We’ve got to be in Bristol Tennessee by 6pm to open for country musician James Meadows and we’ve already passed noon. So it’s a quick jaunt into town to have a walk around and stretch the legs. The girls head off for some clothes shopping. I scoot into a record shop and begin to trawl through their lp section. LPs for all you out there of a certain age (and I’m thinking of my nephews and nieces) are an ancient way of recording and playing back sound that involve lovingly reading sleeve notes, looking at artfully designed covers and spinning dark hued discs on things called turntables. I have to walk out after five minutes – this place has everything, including a slippery slope into credit card debt. Instead I grab a coffee and seat in Izzy’s next door to update the blog and wait for the girls to finish. I immediately like Izzy’s. It’s ‘Death before Decaf’ and ‘Service with a Smirk’ but has the best coffee of the trip so far. An hour later and we’re all off on the journey across the Appalachian mountains to Bristol, Tennessee.

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Bristol is best known for being the location of the famous 1927 recording sessions of local ‘folk’ musician that included The Carter Family and Jimmy Rodgers. The subsequent dissemination of these and other recordings from the sessions helped formulate what we now think of as country music. U.S. Congress passed a resolution in 1998 recognising Bristol’s place in the recorded history of this musical genre.

We’re here at the invitation of one of country music’s rising stars, James Meadows. James is playing the Full Moon Jam, a twice-weekly open-air concert in Bristol’s Downtown Centre. We pull up close by on ‘Carter Family Way’ at 6. Even though it’s an hour before kick-off people are already setting out their stall, booking their place on deck chairs all around a wide-open square. We grab a swift pint in O’Mainnin’s, the local Irish bar and the head to the venue. The stage fronts a huge wall mural documenting the 1927 recording sessions. We introduce ourselves to James and the band. They’re a fantastic bunch, so civil, and we’re excited to hear them play. They’re running a little behind and will call us when they want us on. We decide to grab a seat among the growing crowd. As we walk from the stage and elderly gent in his eighties sitting in the front row with his wife spies my guitar case and asks, “Son, have you got a banjo in there?” It turns out that ‘William’ is a picker himself and grew up locally playing with all the luminaries of Bluegrass, before people even knew to call it that. He grabs my hand on hearing that I’m getting a banjo next week and squeezes it tight, “You bring that banjo back here and we’ll light up this town”. William doesn’t play much anymore, but his grip is like a vice, a sure sign of working hard all his life.

James and the band sound-check – man, they are tight as a nut and sound good. We’re up next. We briefly meet Rich and Lisa of the Believe in Bristol organization and within no time we’re on stage. The girls sound-check with ‘Annan Water’ an after a brief intro we’re on. It’s great being heard over a professional set-up. The crowd are so attentive and after our first song they erupt in applause. James is giving us a thumbs-up from the crowd. We launch into three more songs and each time the crowd cheers louder. The boys in the band had warned us that these people really love music, but we aren’t prepared for the huge and warm reception. We finish with a Carter Family classic ‘I Never Will Marry’. I swear that I can see a woman in the audience crying. Too soon it’s all over. James and the whole band are up with us congratulating the girls on their singing. ‘Man, if the Carter Family were here they would have been in the front row and they would have been covering you!’ I love these guys. The feel-good factor is in overdrive. We take our seats again after slowly working our way through a generous crowd to watch James and the boys play. It feels great to play to a crowd who really appreciate music.

James has just signed a deal in Nashville and will be releasing a single next week. He’s wonderfully charismatic, the band are seasoned pros and they deliver a great performance. It’s new country and James’ star is on the rise. We wave him a goodbye from the audience half way through his set and set out on the road back to Asheville with the reflection of the famous ‘Bristol A Good Place to Live’ in our rear view mirror.

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