When good artists come together with the joint goal of making beautiful music, magic is bound to happen. You don’t have to look much further than the tracklist for Barry Abernathy & Friends to appreciate the truth to this statement, and while the guest list is impressive, it’s Mountain Heart and Appalachian Road Show co-founder Abernathy who deserves the most credit for getting this LP together. His longtime role in the bluegrass community has made him one of the most recognizable players around, racking up plenty of awards for his work along the way, and beside folks like Shawn Lane (“A Train Robbery,” “Fall on the Rock”), Vince Gill (“Birmingham Jail,” “Short Life of Trouble”), Dan Tyminski (“Unwanted Love”) and the dear Steve Gulley (“Back in ’29,” “One Leg At a Time,” “Midnight & Lonesome,” “Lost John”) who we lost just last year, he sounds like the boss he always has been.
Rhonda Vincent adds a wonderful dose of pastoral elegance to “You’ll Never Again Be Mine” that might not have been present in the lyrics without her contribution, much as Doyle Lawson and Josh Swift put a certain final touch on “They Tell Me” immediately making me highlight it as one of the best tracks here. You really can’t fake the sparks that are getting set off here, and moreover, the majestic way in which they form a continuous patchwork of Americana from one song to the next.
Barry Abernathy really dominates in “Fall on the Rock,” “Lost John” and “Back in ’29,” and I like how comfortable he sounds with the varying rhythm of the strings regardless of how is counterpart is approaching the next verse. His confidence is infectious, endearing himself to the music and the family he dedicated this performance to, and arguably the biggest reason why Barry Abernathy & Friends feels like the vitality-laced shot of optimism most of us really needed to hear as we leave 2020 in the rearview mirror. This is effortlessly feel-good, even when introspective, which isn’t quite the case with most of the chart-topping bucolic songcraft out this year.
I really dig the chemistry between Lane and Abernathy in “A Train Robbery,” and aside from the Vince Gill-featured “Birmingham Jail,” I think it could qualify as being the most complete song here. It would be amazing to hear all of this material performed live on stage in a post-COVID world, and with any luck Abernathy will be able to assemble another cast of characters almost as impeccable as this one for some proper gigs in the near future. One has to wonder though; if the heat is this significant inside the four walls of a studio, how potent could it be in an open-air, bluegrass-focused environment?
There have been quite a few interesting collaborations to come out of the woodwork in the last twelve months, but if you’re looking for something that sits just a cut above the rest, Barry Abernathy & Friends might be just the LP you’ve been searching for. It was made as a document of Abernathy’s vocal, with his fear of losing it to surgery on the minds of everyone in the studio, and though he’s going to be fine now it still translates like an amazing depiction of his prime skills on record. Strengthened by its powerful string section and made perfect by the pipes that bring every verse to life before our very ears, this is an album fine-tuned for the bluegrass enthusiast in all of us, and personally I think its arrival couldn’t be better timed.
by Bethany Page