Barry Abernathy — Barry Abernathy & Friends (LP)
Searing and full of a raw humanity rarely found on the FM dial, Barry Abernathy and Vince Gill’s “Birmingham Jail” starts the tracklist for Barry Abernathy & Friends as the record’s lead single and opening cut, and although none of the material it precedes could be considered subpar, this is definitely the song to get the album off and running right. The award-winning Gill and Abernathy set the tone with a bold harmony that flirts with the countrified edge of modern bluegrass only to reel us closer to the downhome Americana bred exclusively in Appalachia, highlighting the significance of their collaboration with a performance fitting of the occasion. The next two songs, “Back in ’29” and “One Leg At a Time,” both feature the late great Steve Gulley, and though they take a similar aesthetical path, they offer as unique an impression of this style’s collaborative roots as we could ask for.
Shawn Lane joins in on the vocal harmonies of “Fall on the Rock” and “A Train Robbery,” both of which lurch where the first trio of tracks here lash us with intensity. With Abernathy leading the charge, a role we normally wouldn’t find the legendary sideman in, we wander through a southern darkness that seems like it could last forever in these two songs, but alas, Rhonda Vincent helps to break up the vibe with a balladic melody in “You’ll Never Again Be Mine” that could be the most brooding of any on Barry Abernathy & Friends. Though the story in this track is just as weighty as the two that it’s sandwiched between, it feels a bit more uplifting thanks to the light tonal presence of its two singers (both of whom make it one of the best duets I’ve heard this year).
Abernathy gets back to the business of hard-grinding bluegrass by the time we reach “Short Life of Trouble,” which also sees Vince Gill getting back into the jam for a performance just as stellar as he gives in “Birmingham Jail.” Gulley’s “Midnight & Lonesome” is startlingly comforting given its handle, but as we’ve learned by this point in the tracklist, nothing is ever quite what it seems in Barry Abernathy & Friends — other than the unadulterated quality of each song, that is. Dan Tyminski makes “Unwanted Love” even more exciting than it would have been without his contribution, which is definitely something considering how great a blaze the instrumental half of this song leaves in its wake. As strong as all of the aforementioned players are, none of them manage to eclipse Abernathy, but certainly not for lack of trying. For a banjoist missing some fingers on one hand, he has a way of shredding the strings just as well as he can sing.
“They Tell Me” has the prettiest country melody acting as its intro, but its gospel diction tethers the soul of the music to Doyle Lawson and Josh Swift’s proud bluegrass heritage with gorgeous harmonic ribbonry to boot. Steve Gulley and Abernathy wrap things up in one last eruptive ascent into a peaceful pastureland with “Lost John,” and from where I sit, it feels much more like the end of a chapter than it does the conclusion of the whole book. Barry Abernathy & Friends is a project Abernathy started when he was at risk of losing his singing voice to surgery (though he would eventually come out just fine), as a way of leaving something behind for his friends and family, but it’s turned into a fantastic moment in history capturing the spirit of several unique players in a jam session that can never be replicated. This founding member of Mountain Heart might have his hands full with Appalachian Road Show these days, but he’s accomplished here deserves just as much praise.