It can be argued, and effectively at that, that music not only speaks to us as individuals, but that it has the capacity to educate us as well. Whether through its lyrical content or the origins from which it’s derived, we can learn a lot from the commitment certain musicians share through their talents and technique.
Still, the lessons are rarely as succinct or spot on as they are when veteran banjo player Barry Abernathy teams with seasoned mandolin picker Darrell Webb. The pair have gathered an assortment of equally skilled players to join them — including Bryan Sutton, Stuart Duncan and Todd Phillips — to present a series of songs that offer an essential study in archival Appalachian music. Over the course of ten tracks, their Appalachian Road Show unfolds as a series of mostly traditional tunes, adapted and repurposed for contemporary consumption. Each offers an illustration of folk and bluegrass forms as derived from the music of early mountain settlers and provincial pioneers. There are a handful of contemporary compositions included as well — the celebratory Dance, Dance, Dance, the swampy stomp of Broken Bones and the down home, harmonies of Anna Lee in particular — but most of the material is clearly of a vintage variety, reflections of another era when simpler sentiments had a marked affect on artistry and execution.
While apt explanation is offered in the album’s spoken introduction — a preface of sorts that sets the stage for the music that subsequently unfolds — little is needed for illustration beyond the songs themselves. The robust playing that soars through the decidedly determined Old Greasy Coat, the jaunty, old time tenacity of Milwaukee Blues and the sturdy yet sobering standard I Am Just a Pilgrim bear the rustic trappings of a timeworn heritage that remains undiminished by any intrusion of modern happenstance. It’s a sound that’s still capable of getting hands to clap, feet to stomp, and bodies to sway, all with a reverence and respect that’s shared between the players and the people it’s played for.
Credit Webb and Abernathy for feeling so connected to form and formula they were bound to share these sounds in their purest essence. Ernest and endearing, Appalachian Road Show ought to be considered a perfect primer for anyone intent on exploring the real roots of essential American music.