March (or February, when the album was released) is a bit early in the year to be talking ‘best bluegrass albums of 2021,’ but darn it—I am.
Without hyperbole, Barry Abernathy & Friends is bound to be as well received as his most recent project with Appalachian Road Show (2020’s Tribulation) and—I suggest—any other release to come our way in 2021.
As much as one enjoys modern approaches to bluegrass—Billy Strings and Barefoot Movement, especially, Billy Droze, Kristy Cox, and the like—an album that sounds simultaneously contemporary and traditional will always be welcome. And that is what we have here. Thematically, Barry Abernathy & Friends is closer to a Lost & Found cassette of thirty-five years ago—replete as it is with songs of britches (albeit not the preserved, ‘leather’ variety,) gold watches and chains, broken hearts and lonesome nights, clueless men and trains that cry, and the incarcerated—than it is to the esoteric themes explored on more forward-pushing albums.
Recorded five years ago, the album’s genesis was the desire for Abernathy to leave an artifact of his voice for his children to hear should a scheduled neck surgery negatively impact his vocal chords. Thankfully, the surgery was successful without impact on Abernathy’s voice, and the album instead serves as testament to his considerable singing prowess.
Bold and punchy production values abound, reminiscent of early Mountain Heart—understandable given that the album is co-produced by alumnus Abernathy and Jim VanCleve. The core band is a creation of a well-connected dreamer. Sam Bush and Doyle Lawson (mandolin) and Bryan Sutton (guitars and clawhammer-style banjo) are just the foundation for a group also including Rob Ickes (reso), VanCleve (fiddle), the always welcome Ron Stewart (banjo), and another former Mountain Heart-er Jason Moore (bass). Mighty stout.
For a bluegrass picker who hadn’t previously stepped up to the lead mic terribly often, Abernathy has one heck of a voice, first-class all the way, stylistically a combination—best I can describe—of Vince Gill (who appears twice) and Leigh Gibson (who doesn’t). Singing lead on each of the eleven tracks, Abernathy doesn’t shirk from the opportunity to sing with some of the finest voices one could assemble for a project. Joining him on select co-leads and harmony are Gill, Shawn Lane, Dan Tyminski (rippin’ it with Abernathy on “Unwanted Love,”) Lawson and Josh Swift, as well as Rhonda Vincent. Another founding member of Mountain Heart, the late Steve Gulley, makes four appearances, including on the resolute “One Leg at a Time” and the downhearted “Midnight and Lonesome.”
The song selection is as impressive, with a pair of Malcolm Holcombe songs “Back in ‘29” and “One Leg at a Time” leading the way alongside the familiar (and chart-climbing) “Birmingham Jail,” featuring Vince Gill. Additional jam-favourites featured are “Lost John” and “Short Life of Trouble,” both well-arranged and expertly presented vocally and instrumentally. Given Abernathy’s beliefs, one isn’t surprised that a pair of gospel numbers are standouts, with Julie Miller’s “Fall on the Rock” (featuring Lane) most impressive; appealingly, “They Tell Me” sounds very Quicksilver-ish!
The only negative worthy of mention is strong, personal opinion, and one that may not prove popular: the decision to record “A Train Robbery.” A bonus track from Paul Kennerley’s The Legend of Jesse James, itis given a fine performance without doubt. But the song glorifies the murderers Jesse and Frank James, elevating them as ‘Missouri farm boy(s) just fightin’ to stay alive.’ Sorry, ain’t buying it—point-of-view is one thing, but we’ve had enough history-twisting, gaslighting these past five years, and revisionist portrayals of bushwhacking outlaws are out-of-place on this otherwise uplifting—as bluegrass records go—album.
Album of the year? Collaboration of the year? Vocalist of the year? Barry Abernathy and Barry Abernathy & Friends are sure to be in the running when ballots are counted in the fall.