In his latest release, the collaborative Barry Abernathy & Friends, bluegrass icon Barry Abernathy invites some of the best players in his genre to the studio for an exhibition as much about self-exposure as it is honoring the great Appalachian harmony. In “Short Life of Trouble” and “Birmingham Jail,” he’s cutting it up with none other than Vince Gill. In “Unwanted Love,” Dan Tyminski steps into the arena for an amazing face-off. “Fall on the Rock” and “A Train Robbery” let Shawn Lane strut his stuff with Abernathy. It all amounts to a one of a kind bluegrass experience originally meant to capture what one man thought could be his last stand as a singer, and if you’re a fan of real American musicality, it’s required listening by all accounts.
The harmonies generated by Abernathy and Steve Gulley in “Back in ’29” and “Lost John” enrich the lyrics they bring forth from the silence in a way that wouldn’t have been the same with another pair of vocalists in the booth, but I don’t think they set an impossibly high bar for the other material to keep up with here. Rhonda Vincent definitely holds her own for “You’ll Never Again Be Mine,” and though fleeting, the gilded presence of Doyle Lawson and Josh Swift cannot be escaped in “They Tell Me.”
Urgency is created through the potency of the lead vocals in this record, a role that is surprisingly played by the award-winning banjoist Abernathy rather exquisitely in Barry Abernathy & Friends. The pacing of the instruments in “Midnight & Lonesome,” “One Leg At a Time” and “They Tell Me” never influences this feeling; it’s always the pressure projected by our singers that encourages us to inch closer to the edge of seats, not in anticipation of certain disaster, but rather of whatever fiery glow we’re going to find on the other side of the next verse. He’s come a long way since Mountain Heart, and it’s undeniable that his time with ARS has made him all the tighter an arranger in general.
The strings threaten to steal some of the thunder away from the vocalists in Barry Abernathy & Friends in “Birmingham Jail,” “A Train Robbery” and the furious “Unwanted Love,” but this doesn’t highlight a hole in the production – the exact opposite, truth be told. There isn’t a single component of this album that isn’t well-produced, and when taking into account just how intentional putting the singers at the forefront of the mix was from the start, it’s all the more dazzling that the backdrop they’re featured with has as important a part in making the mood what it is here.
As a critic, I’ve been following Barry Abernathy for a few years now, but I don’t know that I had heard him sound quite the way he does in this LP prior to connecting with these collaborators for a new round of recording. He’s swaggering, playing off of Vince Gill and the late Steve Gulley like he has been planning on doing this exact project for at least a decade as opposed to conceiving the idea amidst the thought of possibly losing his voice to surgery. This is a man who could portray the very antithesis of a jaded country songwriter, and for the bluegrass community, his work means everything in an era that has not been the friendliest to music lovers or the business overall.