In the eleven tracks that Barry Abernathy and Darrell Webb present Appalachian Road Show offers us, listeners are treated to a sonically calculated smorgasbord of tones and melodies that belong to the Appalachian wilderness and the people who call it home. We start off with a simply spoken intro that unfolds into “Little Black Train,” a grimacing bluegrass thumper that chases us down a dark set of train tracks that musically resemble the unapologetically brutal landscape of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The warm cabins that dot the dewy hills are represented in a folky jig rendition of “Dance, Dance, Dance,” a cover of Steve Miller’s 1976 hit single. The soulful howl of deep southern spirituals makes an appearance in the powerful “Broken Bones.” “Georgia Buck” and “Old Greasy Coat” are old fashioned bluegrass breakdowns that use a feverish tempo to quake the ground beneath our feet. If you listen closely enough to the collaborative vehicle that is Appalachian Road Show’s first album, you too will discover that the misty air of moonshine-soaked nights under the stars isn’t all that difficult to reach when you embrace the multilayered musical wonderment that we’re privy to here.
Jim VanCleve lends Webb and Abernathy a hand with the fiddle parts in their debut collaboration, and the depth of his skillset can be found in the opening thirty seconds of “Piney Mountains” more than anywhere else on the record. This song, like “Anna Lee” and “Little Black Train,” is so lyrically cutting that it almost overshadows the exquisite play by the musicians. Much like in horseshoes and hand grenades, “almost” makes a big difference here. The music bonds itself to the words adeptly, and the emotion can be felt in the echoing vibrations of the strings, which seem to carry on into infinity thanks to this high definition mix. The time that it must have taken to hammer out the smaller details in these songs (as many of them as there are) must have been quite trying on Webb, Abernathy and VanCleve, but their efforts are not in vein in a song like this one.
Appalachian Road Show present us with a polished production, efficient arrangements that put more stock in projecting larger than life melodies than they do in blowing our minds with their virtuosic play, and a relatable construction in this record that makes each song feel like the chapter of a page-turning novel. Tracks that are as cryptically emotional as “Lovin’ Babe” and “Milwaukee Blues” aren’t the sort of material that feels specifically crafted for mainstream radio airplay, but their ambitious design doesn’t make them inaccessible to the average music fan. In the closing track “I Am Just a Pilgrim,” there’s a moment where the collective vocals of the band harmonize so radiantly in synchronicity that they take on the shape of a singular instrument no different from a banjo, a mandolin or a guitar. Appalachian Road Show was made to honor the traditions of its namesake and the bluegrass genre in general, but I think they actually expand on the concept a little bit with this record thanks to their unadulterated experimentation with other southern influences. In that sense I wouldn’t call this just a bluegrass album, but a loving tribute to the music of the American south encompassing the 18th century to present day.