As a niche music form, bluegrass music is always looking for the next big crossover act, a band or singer who can crack into the pop mainstream, and bring greater attention to the genre from which they burst into the popular culture. Alison Krauss has certainly achieved that status, as has Ricky Skaggs, and a number of contemporary artists show promise of doing so as well, like Dan Tyminski or Molly Tuttle.
But the one I saw this week at World of Bluegrass that I predict has what it takes to break beyond the bluegrass market may surprise you – and it’s not someone likely to leave the grass behind when opportunity comes knocking.
Appalachian Road Show is the brainchild of three celebrated bluegrass veterans, with a vision for a stage show that combines a powerful musical presentation with a focus on the Appalachian culture from which it sprang. It began with a vision from Barry Abernathy, who has played banjo and sung with Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver and IIIrd Tyme Out, and who was a founding member of Mountain Heart. By working with these iconic artists, Barry realized the crucial importance of the entertainment aspect of a live performance, as did his partner, fiddler Jim VanCleve, another alumni of Quicksilver and Mountain Heart.
Together with mandolinist Darrell Webb, they envisioned a show that could share the history of the Appalachian region, coupled with a sampling of the music, in a fast moving, hard hitting set. The three of them discussed and worked through ideas for many months before starting to build a band. When it came time for that, their dream bass player was Todd Phillips, who worked in the 1980s with the David Grisman Quintet and the Tony Rice Unit. He was also a member of the legendary Bluegrass Album Band, along with Rice, Doyle Lawson, J.D. Crowe, Bobby Hicks, and Jerry Douglas. When they reached out to him to describe their concept, and ask him to be involved, it was an enthusiastic yes.
The next step was to bring in a guitarist, and young Zeb Snyder was the guy they wanted. He agreed to join in the venture, and did a number of shows with the Road Show, before having some doubts about the approach that Barry had described and suggested that maybe he wasn’t the right guy. But when we spoke yesterday, Abernathy said that once Zeb saw top players like Bryan Sutton filling his shoes on the road, he thought maybe they were actually on to something after all, and asked back in.
Their Tuesday showcase I saw at World of Bluegrass showed that all the planning and scheming has delivered something special. Like most of these convention centers, where they played was a plain room with no special lighting. Typically at these things, people sit quietly, evaluating new talent, and many come and go throughout a showcase. But not here. After a couple of songs, the crowd was whoopin’ and hollerin’, and when the abbreviated set was over, they got a standing ovation from the audience. That confirmed my initial belief that these guys were on to something.
It helps that Abernathy and Webb are two of the most recognized bluegrass vocalists of the past two decades. And their voices vary enough to allow them to give different sides of the music an airing. And all five play with the virtuoso’s confidence, generating a huge band sound and a powerful drive, something that most acts that take an educational tack are missing.
The group dresses in attire common in the early 20th century, and plays traditional mountain music, contemporary bluegrass, and everything in between. The debut single, a reworking of Steve Miller’s Dance, Dance, Dance, with fiddle tunes inserted after every chorus, was a #1 hit on our Bluegrass Today Weekly Airplay chart.
The most effective numbers in their set were the mountain ballads, initiated with Abernathy telling the story of the song – often from true life – with VanCleve softly fiddling in the background. From that introduction, the band will shift into the song itself, with Barry’s plaintive voice conveying the soul of the mountain folk whose lives are being recalled. Or it may be Darrell who shares a story, like the one of his father who died from lung disease after working a life in the coal mines of West Virginia.
They can then follow that with a version of Wheel Hoss that will leave you gasping for air.
When Appalachian Road Show played at World of Bluegrass 2018, it was their first live performance as a band. Looking back now as invited showcase act in 2019, we asked Barry how it looked one year in.
“We think we have even stronger material, and we’re even more self-aware. Most of our shows this summer have been at bluegrass festivals, but our goal is to do a single, 90 minute set on our dates. The live show is something that develops over that time frame, and we feel like it’s diminished when we have to cut it down.
Many of these songs have been passed down for generations, and we want to not only keep them going, but honor the strong and dedicated people who made lives in the mountains over the past 200 years. If we could eventually be viewed as ambassadors of Appalachian culture, that would be an honor.”
Their latest video is a slightly grassified version of Charlie Poole’s classic anthem, Milwaukee Blues.
Time will tell how far they can go with this, but you can certainly count on a riveting set any time you can see Appalachian Road Show in concert. A new album is in the works, and with a perceptive management team, this could be big.
You can learn more about the group online.