Barry Abernathy & Friends (LP)
The strings glisten like the sun’s reflection in an undisturbed lake in “You’ll Never Again Be Mine,” but it isn’t until Barry Abernathy starts to croon that we feel the lifeblood of this bluegrass tune for ourselves. Accompanied by Rhonda Vincent, Abernathy delivers a decadent but unrepentantly restrained performance in this select track from his new album, the appropriately-titled Barry Abernathy & Friends, focusing more on the luster of the harmonies than the punch of the poetry. Songs like this one, “A Train Robbery” (one of two tracks to feature Shawn Lane, the other being “Fall on the Rock”) and “One Leg At a Time” (with Steve Gulley, who sadly passed in 2020), don’t demand a lot out of the audience in exchange for big thrills n’ chills; contrarily, they’re some of the easiest-listening you can come by this February. There’s an introspective, self-aware feeling to a lot of the tales told inside of the record’s eleven songs, but time and time again Barry Abernathy & Friends holds true to the title it was given, giving us an opportunity to see what the former can do when the latter are pushing him to his very best in the studio.
Vince Gill doesn’t get involved with low-class projects; when industry insiders call him the elite among the elite, they aren’t kidding, and his appearance in “Birmingham Jail” and “Short Life of Trouble” is bound to raise a lot of eyebrows in and around country and bluegrass this season. He and Abernathy go to town on these two tracks, putting a lot of what mainstream Nashville has been releasing in the past half-decade to shame inside of just a few verses of “Birmingham Jail.” Steve Gulley draws up some prolific collaborative wit in “Lost John,” “Midnight & Lonesome,” “Back in ‘29” and “One Leg at a Time,” and I like that he seemingly went out of his way to make his contribution to this disc one based purely in the crispest of melodies we could fathom.
Every artist has a different way of taking on this type of material, and though it’s as multifaceted a document as they come, Barry Abernathy & Friends should be considered a good example of what mature songcraft can really accomplish, no matter what the genre or style of music happens to be. Simply put, if you were expecting the top-quality tones of Mountain Heart and Appalachian Road Show, you’re in luck here.
The first songs I listened to on this album were “They Tell Me,” which features Doyle Lawson and Josh Swift, and “Unwanted Love” with Dan Tyminski, and this pair probably could have been dual-teaser singles for the record just as well as “Birmingham Jail” has been. That’s the thing about making a top notch LP; when all is said and done, filler never even has the chance to enter the big picture. This is a crew that can be credited with keeping the best parts of bluegrass, country, western and folk beating as steady as the heart of a lion through the past year’s numerous trials and tribulations, and to experience what they can do at their most cohesive, you need to hear Barry Abernathy & Friends.