Strings of a banjo and mandolin push and shove each other as they briskly march towards a melodic vocal in the first song on Barry Abernathy and Darrell Webb present Appalachian Road Show, titled “Little Black Train,” and keeping up with the swelling tempo is only half the fun in this action-packed opening track. A mischievousness slinks around in the shadows behind us as we trot through the beautiful harmonies being exchanged in the vocal track that overlays the strings. There isn’t a drum kit, metronome or even a mild foot stomp to keep Abernathy and Webb in time, but they show us that they don’t need such elementary trinkets as they lay into a cover of Steve Miller Band’s “Dance, Dance, Dance.” The grizzly minor key cloud that made “Little Black Train” so fascinating evaporates as quickly as it arrived, but in its stead is a freewheeling easiness in the arrangement that almost makes it feel like we’re arriving at a lively party. The swing step of the rhythm is irresistible to anyone who loves to dance, and while I’m aware that this is in fact a Steve Miller tune, I have a feeling that a lot of millennials will think this is an Appalachian Road Show original due to its incredibly imaginative adaptation of the song.


“Broken Bones” completely shifts the gears of the record, directing us now to a chain gang-style ballad from the Deep South outfitted with a suffocating melody that recalls a dark period in American history. The blood and sweat of the pastureland is very present in the lyrics and their musical delivery, but their harmonious marriage isn’t quite as rip-roar as what the following track “Milwaukee Blues” vaults in our direction. On a dime, Abernathy and Webb jump right into old school folk grooves and bring in Jim VanCleve on fiddle just too add a cherry to their amazingly inventive arrangement. There’s hardly any bottom end in this mix, which makes raging ‘grass jams like “Georgia Buck” and “Old Greasy Coat” so clear that it feels like the strings are going to burst right into our physical reality. Wedged between those two songs is the rousing ballad “Piney Mountains,” Appalachian Road Show’s most cathartic song on the album, and one of the most emotional homages to the relationships forged in and by the great American south that I’ve heard in some time.

A campfire love song called “Anna Lee” ushers us into the final act of Barry Abernathy and Darrell Webb present Appalachian Road Show, and though it beautifully soundtracks an evening of dancing under the stars, its lyrical content is more intuitive and thoughtful than any country song pursuing the same tone. “Lovin’ Babe” tosses a little more irony and bittersweet blues ranting into the pot before letting “I Am Just a Pilgrim” close out the record with a vintage performance of vocal folk music accompanied by a light instrumental track flickering in the distance. Appalachian Road Show is a collaborative project between Barry Abernathy and Darrell Webb that has a lot more heart and soul than I expected, and their first album together is a great listen for anyone who loves engaging, uninhabited bluegrass that isn’t shy about exploring its tonality.


Sebastian Cole