Barry Abernathy will be the featured guest today on The Story with Dick Gordon, aired on WUNC (North Carolina Public Radio). Barry is the banjo player with Mountain Heart, and performed previously with both Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver and IIIrd Tyme Out.
You would never know it from hearing his music, but Barry had much to overcome in establishing a career as a professional musician. He was born with a deformity of his left hand, and has no fingers – only a thumb and several partial digits. Barry cultivated a fascination with the banjo at a young age, and developed a technique that was within his reach, playing over the top of the neck rather than wrapping the hand around from below. He uses his thumb and the knuckles of his partial fingers to fret the notes, modifying common fingerings and chord shapes allow him to play effective and authentic bluegrass style banjo.
There is much to admire about Barry, and succeeding against great odds is only one thing among many. His tone, command of time, meticulous execution and impeccable sense of appropriateness set him apart as a banjo player without regard to his physical challenges. On top of that, he has consistently refused to trade on his handicap, resisting the “show biz” urge to portray himself primarily in that fashion.
Even more admirably, when he does address it publicly or on stage, it is with humor and a great comfort with his situation. A running joke that involves my company, AcuTab Publications, is always a hit with audiences when he tells it on stage. Barry will mention how other prominent banjo players have had transcription books of their solos published by AcuTab, and then suggest that he has one called “AcuNub,” with every page showing a one finger bar chord diagram.
The interview with Gordon for The Story centers on Barry’s learning to play without fingers. It can be heard today, September 22, at both 1:00 and 8:00 p.m. on WUNC. The station can be heard on 91.5 in central NC, and is streamed live online.