The new album by Kansas City folk musician Bill Abernathy introduces audiences around the globe to a style of play that he formulated in his last album Find A Way but has now fully realized in his latest studio effort. The richly textured sound of Americana is still as radiant as it has ever been, but now it’s refined under the direction of a polished production that leaves no detail unrevised. The centerpiece of this record is its connective melodies, which shed the pop-friendly rigidity of contemporary folk and replace it with an eclectic, patient humbleness that is hard not to fall in love with. Stacked high with eleven unique tracks featuring a litany of memorable verses, guitar salvos and percussive breakdowns, Crossing Willow Creek is a standout crossover album in a year full of intriguing new releases.
Our focus is constantly being drawn to the harmony between the instrumentation and Abernathy’s singing in this LP, and nowhere is that more evidenced than in the grooves of “Icarus” and “Love’s In Vain.” In these two slower songs, we venture into melancholic realms that would otherwise be somber and difficult to digest, but with Abernathy leading the way using his trademark reserved earnestness, the mood isn’t quite as crushing. The mix juxtaposes the lyrics and music purposely, particularly in more muscular songs like “White Knight” and “Cry Wolf,” but it’s not a jarring experiment in sonic cohesiveness. This concept works here because of the volume of intricacies these compositions feature; were Abernathy to not make full use of this stereo sound, the songs would feel so much more miniscule and subtle than they actually are.
The creative depth of the material we find in Crossing Willow Creek is a staggering upgrade from Find A Way, which was well-received by fans and critics but lacked a certain “it” factor that most of us would agree Abernathy is obviously in possession of. I don’t think he could have penned “Yuppie Blues” or the more pendulous “Meant to Be” beforehand; in this record he seems much more confident and sure of his style of attack. The music is as broadly distributed as the vocals are, and in songs like “Any Port” or even a blues-rock tune like “Whiskey Road” our attention is spread out all over the place rather than remaining transfixed on Abernathy’s lyrics. As far as I’m concerned this is one of the better-produced records I’ve heard this year, and it spotlights an artist who only needed the right moves behind the soundboard to really come into his own.
Crossing Willow Creek kicks off with a trio of country swingers in the form of “Can’t Go Back,” “Changes,” and the intrepid “Willow Creek,” and in their blustery twang I see a glimpse into Bill Abernathy’s future. He’s got the charisma of an old time storyteller and the sway that’s missing from the bulk of Nashville’s superstars nowadays, and that adds up to a level of success in the country market that most folk musicians could only dream of attaining. Abernathy has the chops to do almost anything he wants to with this flexible sound he’s created out of the ashes of Americana’s once-dominant glory, and the melting pot of tonality that is Crossing Willow Creek serves as hard proof of his immeasurable capabilities as an artist.