This year’s Graves Mountain Festival of Music is bringing some well-known stars like Larry Sparks, Mo Pitney and Ralph Stanley II to Syria, and will close out Saturday night with the Appalachian Road Show.
While that name may not be familiar to most bluegrass fans, the group’s members span a who’s-who of important acoustic music groups of the last 3 decades. Banjo player and singer Barry Abernathy visited the Graves Festival in past years as a member of Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver and Mountain Heart. He came up with the idea for Appalachian Road Show as a way to way to teach people about the culture of the region. The self-titled début album was released last year under Abernathy’s name, along with mandolin player Darrell Webb. The album kicks off with a spoken-word introduction that serves as a mission statement for the project.
“That introduction to the album says what I’m thinking—this is our culture,” said Abernathy. “The music of the great Appalachian mountain people has been described as the very soul of this region’s rich history.”
Abernathy shared his vision for the project with fellow Mountain Heart alumni, fiddle player Jimmy Van Cleve and mandolin player Darrell Webb (Wildfire, Lonesome River Band, Rhonda Vincent). They recruited veteran bassist Todd Phillips (Dave Grisman, Doyle Lawson, Ricky Skaggs) and guitarist Zeb Snyder to round out the band. The group went into the studio to play together for the first time, along with notable guest musicians Bryan Sutton on guitar and Stuart Duncan on fiddle.
“We basically created our band in the studio,” said Abernathy. “So what you’re hearing is the creation. We cut one to two tracks on every song there. We just made a couple passes on every song and picked the best one. Live music: what you hear is what you get.”
The material on the album spans traditional gospel to classic rock, all done in a style that stays in touch with the roots of Appalachian music. Abernathy felt drawn to the old gospel songs that shaped his early musical development.
“We want people to feel all those emotions and all those things that I felt when I heard my preacher preach and sing when I was growing up,” said Abernathy. “He passed away a few years ago, and he was almost 100 years old. Even when he preached he had a cadence that was like singing. It’s just a culture that’s almost gone. The gospel songs on the record are things I pulled from that history of me growing up in the church, hearing some of the male quartets.”
On the other end of the musical spectrum, Appalachian Road Show also does its own version of the Steve Miller Band hit “Dance Dance Dance.” Abernathy and Van Cleve had worked that song up when they were with Mountain Heart, but it was never performed or recorded. They brought back the idea for this project and mashed it up with some traditional songs. Since the original Steve Miller version had a country feel, the fiddle tunes add an authentic flavor.
Abernathy has had to scale some mountains himself to get where he is in the bluegrass music world. Born with only one finger on his left hand, he has developed his own style on the banjo that transcends his physical limitations.
“I was skipping stuff and simplifying things a whole lot. I really have to simplify my left hand technique and change rolls,” said Abernathy. “There’s little things I’ve changed and shortcuts I took to try and make it work for me. Being around great musicians, it’s hard to swallow, because I understand a lot about music and I know how I’d like to play and sound, and I know where the stuff is. Sometimes it’s basically impossible, so you do the best you can and try not to show your weaknesses if possible. I think with this band I can do that again.”
Abernathy recalled his mother’s reluctance when he told her he wanted to be a professional musician.
“I knew I wanted to play when I was 14 or 15 years old. My mama would say, ‘now honey, you know you can’t play music. You don’t have any fingers on your left hand. I’m not trying to put you down but you know you can’t play.’ I said, ‘I’m going to play. That’s what I’m going to do.’ She always said she hated that she said that.
“I play music. I don’t know how much of a living it is. She might be half right.”