There isn’t much in this world as strong as the relationship between an artist and their medium, and Barry Abernathy and Friends is a testament to this. When Abernathy found out he might be losing his singing voice to surgery, he knew he had to act quick to preserve something for his friends and family if things took a turn for the worse. Assembling a group of players including the likes of Vince Gill, Steve Gulley, Shawn Lane and Rhonda Vincent to get together and jam with the founder of Mountain Heart and Appalachian Road Show, the creative fireworks combusted without much kindling. Abernathy wound up being just fine, but the fruits of this attempt at sonic immortality arrives on record store shelves this February and welcomes us into the acclaimed bluegrass steward’s sound just the same. It’s a sound interpreted through the lens of the aforementioned artists as well as Dan Tyminski, Doyle Lawson and Josh Swift, each of whom bring something unique to the table. This isn’t amateur hour by any means; in this LP, we discover nothing less than pure melodic perfection as it’s been crafted by the most American players in the game.
We enjoy an incredible warmth to the string play throughout this record, but in the case of “Birmingham Jail (ft. Vince Gill),” “One Leg At a Time (ft. Steve Gulley)” and the balladic “You’ll Never Again Be Mine (ft. Rhonda Vincent),” the production quality surrounding the instrumentation proves to be as important to this crew as the actual musicianship is. There’s so much focus dedicated to even the most subtle of texture in this mix, and although there are some songs with deliberate rusticity adorning the melody for good measure (“Lost John”), it’s always supported by either the theme of the lyrics or the style of the harmonies as they’re started by Barry Abernathy himself.
I absolutely love the energy of all the collaborators in this LP, but the tracks “They Tell Me (ft. Doyle Lawson and Josh Swift),” “Midnight & Lonesome (ft. Gulley),” “Unwanted Love (ft. Dan Tyminski)” and “Birmingham Jail (ft. Vince Gill)” really stuck out to me as the most striking of the bunch. Abernathy never has a problem sharing the attention with any of these players, and we find his own vocals adapting to the rhythm and harmonic flow of his counterpart rather simply regardless of who’s in the booth with him. It takes a really skillful artist to come into a project like this as humbly as he did, and over the course of Barry Abernathy & Friends, I think he successfully demonstrates why he’s become the trusted bluegrass sideman that he has.
Barry Abernathy never goes halfway with anything in his career – despite all of the challenges he’s faced, including having been born with less than ten fingers but having a love for the banjo unparalleled to anything in his life, he always puts 100% into whatever project he’s working on. In the case of his latest release, listeners can count upon the legendary sideman to bring forth some of the best melodies you’re going to hear all year long once more. Though Barry Abernathy & Friends doesn’t necessarily try to reintroduce its creator nor the collaborative pieces it features to the audience, it does give us a very multidimensional look at all of their talents as they comprise progressive bluegrass in 2021 – and serves as a poignant farewell to Steve Gulley, who passed away just last year. It’s an unrelenting melting pot of tremendous poetic, personal and cultural value, and whether you’re new to the genre or not I believe you’re going to find it particularly moving as we enter this exciting spring season in music.