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Barry Abernathy – Barry Abernathy & Friends LP

If there’s one thing that award-winning Barry Abernathy knows how to do better than most of the musicians in his peer group, it’s tell us a story. He’s been spinning yarns from behind the banjo – even without the use of all ten fingers – with a melodic twist to his every verse for years now, and his latest collaborative piece in Barry Abernathy & Friends ought to be considered the most complete of his discography to date.

Abernathy didn’t invite one or two star players in on this latest project, but instead as many as he had in his phone book – tapping no less than Vince Gill, Rhonda Vincent and Dan Tyminski just to name a few – but there’s nothing about the record’s chosen content that would suggest he’s looking to hide behind someone else’s sound. This was an album made for himself and his family, in hopes of preserving his singing voice in the event of losing it completely to surgery (which he thankfully didn’t). There are a lot of ways to make a record like Barry Abernathy & Friends, but the route taken by these musicians was probably the best of them all – allowing for the theme of one song to spill into the next, gearing our focus towards the incendiary flow of the lyrics more than we ever are the gallop of the grooves. Fast (“Lost John”) or slow (“You’ll Never Again Be Mine”), there’s always a sense of togetherness binding every harmony between our main man and Gill, Vincent, Tyminski, the iconic and recently-passed Steve Gulley, Doyle Lawson, Josh Swift or Shawn Lane, and it keeps us intrigued from the LP’s start through its finish line. 

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If the intention behind getting so many different guests into one studio was to cultivate an environment where musicians are bringing out the best attributes in one another, to say the goal was met and then some might be too great an understatement to make about Barry Abernathy & Friends. The command of the vocals in “One Leg At a Time” and “Back in ’29” (both of which feature Steve Gulley) is what enhances the mood of the music more than the instrumentation ever could have singularly, and while I would usually prefer a little more balance with the string section than the vocals afford “Unwanted Love,” “They Tell Me” and “A Train Robbery,” the formula works rather well for this specific scenario. You don’t have to be a professional critic to tell that there was a lot of time and attention poured into hammering out even the most seemingly insignificant of intricacies in this material, but as a longtime Abernathy follower (i.e. going back to Mountain Heart and his recent work in Appalachian Road Show), I could have told you this would be the case ahead of time. 

2020 was a rough year for most of us who normally enjoy taking in a concert or two, particularly during the summer jam season when traditional sidemen like Barry Abernathy really come into their own, but this could be the reason why his latest album is such a treat to hear right now. Barry Abernathy & Friends feels like a taste of that moonlit, late-July bluegrass sound so many of us consume as soul food – especially when times are tougher than usual – and it’s a record I think any fan of the genre needs to get their hands on immediately. 

Mindy McCall

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