By Susannah Ware
“Darlin, have you ever been here before?” the Bristol Campground manager asked in his sweet country drawl.
“No sir, I haven’t,” I replied, smiling through the phone and instinctually reverting to the Southern politeness I had grown up with.
“Well, we’ve got 1,300 acres and y’all are welcome to sleep wherever you like when you get here.”
This was our first introduction to Bristol’s laidback charm as I planned the trip for my boyfriend Jacob and me to attend Mumford & Sons’s Gentlemen of the Road (GOTR) concert. I had been particularly concerned that the campground, usually used for NASCAR races, would kick us off our site if we hadn’t filled out the online form properly. Turns out, I had nothing to worry about.
The campground and what seemed like the whole Bristol community were expecting us, as well as the other visitors from across the map. We were outsiders, but welcome to join in and poke our heads around to see if we liked what we saw.
What we saw were streets lined with flags, storefronts welcoming fans with mustachioed signs, and restaurants serving up local burgers, bar-b-q, and brews. We took an instant liking to it, much like Mumford and Sons had the year before.
When the band originally visited Bristol, they were passing through from Nashville to New York between shows. They spoke with a few locals about the possibility of the town as a concert venue and visited their hoped-for site. Even then, they envisioned the concert on the lot in front of the illuminated historic train station, which was renovated to become an event/meeting facility after passenger service ended. Recounting the visit to the audience during the concert, they had met with what they felt were kindred spirits in a place rich with music history. (Congress’ HR 214 named Bristol the “Birthplace of Country Music,” as it was home to the first recordings of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family.) The historic site added great ambiance to already great music.
But music was only part of the experience—most of the morning and for a few afternoon strolls, we were drawn down Bristol’s central artery. State Street, which is bisected by the Virginia/Tennessee state line, offers two doses of Southern hospitality. (Jacob and I had started our relationship long-distance, so we found this walk-able dividing line a novelty for the day.)
We had four main takeaways from Bristol’s Main Street community, which undoubtedly contributed to Jacob’s frequent announcements of, “I like this place. I’d live here.”
- Happy Hosts: Regardless of long lines at restaurants with expanded storefronts spilling into the street, servers were courteous, kind, and curious towards the concertgoers. No doubt businesses were getting quite a boost from the event, but they were taking on the strain in stride. While waiting at one local watering hole, we even got to partake in a new Bristol cocktail -- homemade lemonade with Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey Whiskey, which Jacob dubbed “lemonade with confidence.” (I hope the lemonade was made in Virginia for a true VA/TN Bristol combo).
- “Come On In” Community: Finding a solid community seems like a given in such a small town but we city folk, who interact with neighbors at best with a smile and a nod, were impressed by the closeness. At one restaurant, a younger woman headed to the concert stopped to speak with the manager, who was swiftly emptying overloading trash bags and refilling drinks. We overheard him ask her to work at the next event from 10 a.m. – 1 a.m. As our eyes widened at the shift length, her chipper response was instead, “Sure, sounds great! How many more will you need me to bring? My sister might want to help.” Seemed like everyone was ready to jump in to show off Bristol.
- Local Lovers: While this was a massive event with people pouring in from all over the South and Mid-Atlantic, Bristol took advantage of showcasing their local beer, local grass-fed beef, and local music. (Our favorite brew was the Honey Cream Ale from Wolf Hills Brewery.)
- Music Metropolis: To close out the concert, Mumford and Sons pulled the other GOTR artists on stage for “Wagon Wheel,” a rousing cover that left the place echoing with one last love song to the South. But the show didn’t end there—after-parties thumped into nearby venues and local musicians dotted State Street serenading fans on their retreat. For those eager for more al fresco entertainment, Americana band The Black Lillies jammed with Bristol's Country Music Mural as their backdrop.
As State Street finally grew quiet, we begrudgingly headed back to our temporary camp, but we were left wanting more. More music. More local food and drink. More welcoming folks. More Bristol.
So now, the next time we're meandering along the state line, and someone asks me, “Darlin', have you ever been here before?” I can say, “Well, yes, I have. And I can't wait to get back.”