Published October 19, 2023

Bristol, Virginia, was in lights this weekend in the Virginia Folklife Area of the 2023 Richmond Folk Festival.

Artists from around the Virginia-Tennessee border city—known by most as the “birthplace of country music”—shared music and more. In the Appalachian Traditions demonstration tent, festival-goers could discover unique traditions of the Bristol region: fast cars, handmade home goods, and runway-ready fashions. Nearly all of the artists presented at the festival by Virginia Folklife received a Greater Bristol Folk Arts & Culture Team Fellowship, funded by Central Appalachia Living Traditions, a program of Mid Atlantic Arts. 

KT Vandyke, an instrument repairman from Bristol, demonstrates how to repair a cracked guitar. Photo by Nina Wilder/Virginia Humanities

Displays by more than a dozen artists introduced traditional and evolving Appalachian crafts of the greater Bristol area. Artists Amanda Sprinkle (Abingdon), Anna Mullins (Coeburn), Erin Simons (Wytheville), Jackson Cunningham (Mouth of Wilson), Jesse Halverson (Bristol), John Alexander (Independence), Katie Hoffman and Brett Tiller (Jonesborough, TN), KT Vandyke (Bristol), and Stephen Curd (Glade Spring) demonstrated the wide variety of arts in this Appalachian region. The Fleenor Family (Bristol) brought their yellow dragster, which has reached speeds nearing 160mph on the Bristol Dragway. Regional organizations including the Birthplace of Country Music Museum and The Crooked Road provided historical information—and a reason for Richmonders to visit the region. 

Festival attendees could enjoy demonstrations in making Appalachian toys, repairing cracked guitars, maintaining your cast iron, weaving and spinning, installing frets on an instrument, building a dulcimer out of cardboard, and making baskets and brooms.

Bristol was also represented on the Center for Cultural Vibrancy Stage, where Radio Bristol’s Farm and Fun Time® had a live recording session. This special set, hosted by Bill and the Belles, featured two duos from the region: bluegrass sweethearts Linda and David Lay and ballad singer Elizabeth LaPrelle with her Virginia Folklife apprentice, Elsa Howell.

The “New Sounds of Bristol” showcase opened the stage on Sunday, featuring the next generation of regional musicians and hosted by Tyler Hughes of The Crooked Road. Roxanne McDaniel opened the set with a heartfelt pair of songs about growing up and leaving her small east-Tennessee town. Pierceton Hobbs’ fiddle was followed by geonovah’s rapped verses and beats, and the set culminated in classic country music played by Jackson Cunningham, KT Vandyke and Toni Doman.

The Virginia Folklife Area experience blended old with the new—these artists may be practicing crafts that have been around for generations, but each transforms tradition in their own unique way.  When we asked them about how traditions evolve, and what defines Appalachian art and culture today, the artists expressed similar ideas.

Roxane McDaniel chats with a festival attendee in the Virginia Folklife Area. Photo by Nina Wilder/Virginia Humanities

Several artists reflected on the diversity of Appalachian traditions, both past and present. Roxanne McDaniel reflected on enduring the difficulties of queer life in a small town. Her work today is helping to build an inclusive Appalachian community, one that she sees embodied in the dulcimer—an accessible instrument because of its affordability and how easy it is to learn how to play.

“People are taking the best of the old ways and bringing them into today to make meaningful art and expression and representation for Appalachians now,” Roxane shared. Rather than staying stagnant, she believes today’s Appalachian traditions “look to the future.” 

Geonoah Davis, a.k.a geonovah. Photo by Pat Jarrett/Virginia Humanities

Geonoah Davis, a hip hop artist from Big Stone Gap who performs as geonovah, has also made it his mission to create a supportive community for artists who, like himself, do not fall into stereotypical Appalachian categories. He finds fulfillment in building support networks: “What gives me joy is creating and using what comes from it to help those around me,” he said.

Elsa Howell’s journey into old time music was driven by the community she found in it. She grew up in Roanoke watching her father play in the old-time music scene. “My dad brought me into the world of old-time music,” Elsa shared. “He taught me everything I know about guitar and he never ceased to encourage me.”

Elsa Howell performs on the Center for Cultural Vibrancy stage. Photo by Nina Wilder/Virginia Humanities

Despite these family ties, Elsa shared that it was not always easy to see herself in the old-time community. She credits her mentor, Elizabeth LaPrelle, with showing Elsa that there is a place for young women like her. Elizabeth made Elsa feel welcome and empowered, and though she’s still young, Elsa is ready to pass the favor forward.

Throughout this weekend in the Virginia Folklife Area, Bristol’s unique take on Appalachian arts and culture was palpable. These art forms continue to be shaped by a new generation of Appalachian artists. As a final reflection on the weekend, artist Erin Simons put it perfectly:

“I honestly can’t put into words yet what my heart is feeling after this weekend, but I can say I met and witnessed some of the most creative and humble people who embody the spirit of Appalachia this weekend,” she shared. “I feel honored to have been a part of it. We live and are surrounded by such a rich and beautiful place and people. I encourage you to take the time to get to know it better. Even if you have lived in it your whole life, I know from experience, there is so much more magic waiting for you to explore.”

Erin Simons demonstrates broom making in the Appalachian Traditions tent. Photo by Pat Jarrett/Virginia Humanities