Ever wonder what was on the radio when Dr. Brown went hurtling across the space/time continuum in the Back To The Future movies?
It might have been tunes from Bill & The Belles.
This Johnson City quartet writes and performs music that is, most definitely, a sonic trip through time. Drawing inspiration from music that spans decades before now, it doesn’t seem unlikely that you would find a Bill & The Belles track on a dusty Victrola 78, filed away with sides cut by artists like Jimmie Rodgers, The Carter Family, and Charley Patton in a vintage cabinet record player.
Kris Truelson, singer and guitarist for the band, is a student of old music, working as the producer for WBCM/Radio Bristol, the flagship radio station headquartered at the Birthplace of Country Music in Bristol, Virginia. Joining him in the band Kalia Yeagle on fiddle, Grace Van’t Hof on banjo, and Karl Zerfas on bass.
In a region heavily populated with bands who turn their ears backward in time for musical inspiration – bluegrass and old-time are staples in the mountains of Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee – Bill & The Bells have cultivated a singular status. There is no other band out there better at rekindling the sound, and the interest in it, of that early 20th-century Appalachian band. Their ability to rejuvenate the sounds of years gone by has landed them the role as house band for Farm & Fun Time, a monthly live performance radio show that originated in Bristol in the 1940s, and they have become featured performers at festivals across the country.
I recently caught up with the whole band to chat about the new record, the musical history of Bristol, and what to check out if you make it to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.
BRO – What’s the secret to keeping the music you play fresh?
B&TB – A lot of the music we’re inspired by has a timeless quality to it. The inspiration for our music spans about 150 years, so it sometimes feels funny to refer to when our music “comes from,” but the melodies and songs we pick are ones that we feel can be as relevant today as they were “back then.” Our new album, DreamSongs, Etc., features half original material, and that’s going to be a focus for us moving forward. The songs we’re introducing are brand new and maintain the same timelessness that originally shaped our band’s sound.
BRO – Farm & Fun Time has become a staple at the Birthplace of Country Music. If you could bring back one guest from the program’s earliest days, who would it be and what song would you want to hear?
B&TB – One of the coolest things about today’s Farm & Farm Time is the fact that we’ve been able to have so many living performers from back in the 1940s and 1950s on board. Ralph Stanely, Jesse McReynolds, and a lot of other regional artists have been a part of the show, and we are honored to keep its legacy alive.
BRO – Along the same lines, your favorite recording from the Bristol Sessions? One that makes you think, “Boy howdy, I’d like to have been there when they laid that down.”
B&TB – Everything Alfred Karnes laid down. We was one of the best, most powerful singers of the day. One of his songs was highly influetial for a track on our album, “Back To My Childhood Days.” Can you guess which one?
BRO – We are featuring “Finger Pointin’ Mama” on this month’s Trail Mix. What’s the story behind the song?
B&TB – It’s a cheeky take on the classic relationship gone wrong song, about the frustration of dealing with people you don’t want to deal with. A little funny, a little cathartic, a little nasty. It’s a much needed reminder to be honest with yourself and each other.
BRO – Best reason to visit the Birthplace of Country Music Museum?
B&TB – You’ll find us there the second Thursday of every month for Farm & Fun Time! We’re the house band and Kris is the host, and he’s put a whole lot of work into this show over the last few years. We’re proud of what it’s accomplished and are glad to be a part of a monthly celebration of our region. The Birthplace of Country Music also puts on the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, a festival we look forward to every year and has come to feel like a home for our band.
You can catch Bill & The Belles this week in Nashville and Knoxville.
The August Farm & Fun Time was last week, but if you are in the Bristol area for Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, you can catch all the fun that weekend.
For more information on Bill & The Belles, upcoming shows, and the brand new record, please check out their website.
And be sure to take a listen to “Finger Pointin’ Mama,” along with new tunes from Hot Rize, Chicago Farmer, The Devil Makes Three, and many more, on this month’s Trail Mix.