This just released project from Barry Abernathy of Appalachian Road Show is a must have for bluegrass music fans. Barry Abernathy and Friends is aptly titled. The album features a dream-team ensemble, hand-picked (no pun intended) by Abernathy himself.
The core band, recorded live at Oak Tree Studios by David Hall in Hendersonville, TN, included: Ron Stewart, banjo; Bryan Sutton, guitar and claw hammer banjo; Sam Bush and Doyle Lawson, mandolins; Rob Ickes, resonator guitars; Jason Moore, bass; and ARS band mate, Jim VanCleve, on fiddle. Harmony vocals were provided by A-listers Vince Gill, Rhonda Vincent, Dan Tyminski, Doyle Lawson, Shawn Lane, the late Steve Gulley, and others which were overdubbed in VanCleve’s Third Dawn Studio, in Gallatin, TN.
Abernathy serves as lead vocalist on all the tunes, but does not participate instrumentally to the CD. The project was recorded in 2016 while the banjoist was recovering from neck surgery. The initial operation to repair degenerative discs caused the professional musician to develop thoracic outlet syndrome. His neck and shoulder muscles pressed against nerve bundles which caused severe pain in Abernathy’s right hand, and made him unable to pick. (Thankfully, that ability has fully been restored and he is back fluently hammering the five even though being born without all five digits on his left hand.)
The album offers a nice variety of well-produced, quality music that reflects the depth and research that went into the Ellijay, GA native’s selection of songs. The eclectic array of tunes includes a couple pairs of originals penned by Tennessee songstress, Julie Miller, and Asheville’s folklorist, Malcolm Holcombe. The latter’s One Leg At A Time is a bluesy number that spotlights Moore’s bass prowess and lets the band break loose and shine instrumentally. It would make any picker long to have been witness to the magic moments in the studio.
There’s also a ballad on outlaw Jesse James and his brother, Frank, in Train Robbery with harmony by Shawn Lane (who also duets on Fall on the Rock), and a Quicksilverish Gospel trio number, They Tell Me, that features Abernathy with his former boss, Lawson on tenor, and Quicksilver alum, Josh Swift, on baritone.
Lost John is a hard driving tune arranged by Abernathy and VanCleve that kicks off in ARS style with Sutton claw hammering the banjo in a retro recording sound. It is both touching and fitting that his Mountain Heart charter member buddy, Steve Gulley (who tragically passed away last year), reunites with Abernathy, Moore, and VanCleve on the aforementioned track, plus three others. Birmingham Jail, the first single release from the album, is doing well and features the unmistakable tenor of Vince Gill. The Nashville icon also joins in on Abernathy’s arrangement of the old Stanley Brothers’ song, Short Life of Trouble.
A personal favorite is a Hank Williams, Sr. tearjerker, You’ll Never Again Be Mine. The duet features a perfect pairing of voices between Abernathy and Rhonda Vincent. Abernathy croons soulfully and Vincent hits some gravity defying high notes on the chorus, with VanCleve supplementing tasteful baritone. The song is pure ear candy.
A power number, Unwanted Love, matches Abernathy with Dan Tyminski. Kid approved, the punch of this hard-driving song is evident in the way that it drives our one-year-old granddaughter to move rhythmically to the beat. The pickers are really smoking the strings on this one.
The eleven tunes truly allow Abernathy to play his vocal pipes. His soulful voice draws you in, tugs at your heart, and makes you realize Barry’s deep passion for his faith, his heritage, his respect for his musical and biological families, and his mission to share good, quality music. The project brings Abernathy, initially recognized as a gifted sideman, into the limelight as a powerful, impacting lead vocalist.
It was a genius move by Jerry Salley, Ed Leonard, and Billy Blue Records to acquire and release this wonderful compilation. Barry Abernathy and Friends, though on a smaller scale, is reminiscent of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1972 Will the Circle Be Unbroken, offering memorable music by a variety of impressive guest performers.
This CD is destined to become a classic in the bluegrass community. This clearly could be an IBMA Album of the Year candidate. Highly recommended!