Banjo Ace Barry Abernathy is Back With Some Friends
“Lost John,” one of the eleven songs on the new album Barry Abernathy & Friends, might have the pace of a wild jungle cat, but it doesn’t lack in substance or deliberate lyrical charm on the part of its two key players at all. Together with Steve Gulley, who sadly passed away last year, Abernathy is putting on a bluegrass clinic in this once-in-a-lifetime performance that sees him taking up lead vocals for a change, and it’s far from the only such instance of him doing so in Barry Abernathy & Friends.
The guests are some of the best of the best in modern acoustic music, the strings are sizzling like nobody’s business (especially Abernathy’s banjo), but of all the reasons to pick up this record right now, the accessibility of its titular player might be the biggest reason.
The late Steve Gulley’s performances aren’t the only harmony-laden treats you’re going to find in this tracklist; “They Tell Me” features a pairing of Doyle Lawson and Josh Swift, “Short Life of Trouble” and lead single “Birmingham Jail” have Vince Gill in the passenger seat, and Shawn Lane drops in for two with “Fall on the Rock” and “A Train Robbery,” both of which top my list of favorite songs here. The only predictable component of this material is knowing Abernathy will always be in the center of the jamming no matter which track we’re listening to, which is more than I can say for a lot of mainstream LPs out right now. He might be typically known as a sideman, but this award-winning player is a true frontman in his latest release.
The master mix here spreads out the luster of the collective attack from Sam Bush, Lawson, Bryan Sutton, Jim Van Cleve, Ron Stewart, Jason Moore and Rob Ikes, which prevents any one specific part of the string section from overpowering the rest of the music. It lights a fire behind “Back in ‘29” and “Midnight & Lonesome” that I wouldn’t change for anything in this setting, and considering the delicate vocal harmonies of a song like “You’ll Never Again Be Mine,” it’s essential to making the narrative tangible and preserving the natural fragility of the instrumental melodies. Abernathy’s award-winning and physics-defying banjoist skills might have gotten him this far, but here is able to be much more multidimensional than usual.
There’s a really sophisticated feel to almost everything in Barry Abernathy & Friends, but compositionally speaking I don’t see anything all that bombastic here. Tracks like “One Leg At a Time” and “Short Life of Trouble” do a lot to prove that players create the right performances through passion more than anything else, and although the production style benefits the content beyond any need for debate, it never facilitates the vibe in this music. That’s entirely the job of Abernathy and his collaborators, who channel a historically tight-knit bluegrass culture impeccably in this LP.
I know it might be a bit early considering Barry Abernathy & Friends is as brand new as brand new can be, but I don’t think it would be out of the question to call this record an instant classic. Between the featured guests and the magnetizing quality of Abernathy himself, who originally made this record solely to preserve what he once thought could be his last chance to sing for friends and family, it feels like one of the most important releases these artists will ever stamp their names on.