When a group of musicians get together and says to each other; let form a band, typically, there is lot that goes into making that decision into a reality. As well as months of rehearsals to hone in on the chemistry of the band mates, cohesiveness of their repertoire, and the general business of being a band all take time.
However, when you take a group of seasoned musicians who come together after years of traveling their own musical journeys first, there’s a good chance something magical is going to happen.
Such is the case with the fellas in the newly formed bluegrass band, Appalachian Road Show. Veteran, award-winning, road musicians Barry Abernathy (banjo), Darrell Webb (Mandolin), Jimmy VanCleve (fiddle), and Todd Phillips (bass), along with a young, talented Zeb Snyder (guitar), have come together to create what just might quickly become a strong candidate for band of the year.
I saw them play a showcase at IBMA in 2018 that just lit the audience up. From start to finish, the crowd was on their feet. I’ve since learned that it was their first show as a band, and they had actually had their first rehearsal as a full band 15 minutes earlier, back stage, before the show.
The band’s mission is simple and unique at the same time; Honor the music, traditions, and history of the great Appalachian people and regions, as well as forge their own fresh music, while keeping the authenticity and vitality of their Appalachian roots.
I caught up with Barry Abernathy recently, who, along with Jimmy VanCleave, birthed the idea of this great new venture after reconnecting on a solo project.
A Long Time Coming
Barry’s professional career in music started in 1994 when he joined IBMA Hall Of Fame Doyle Lawson’s band, Quick Silver. In 1998 he teamed up with Steve Gully, Adam Steffey, Jimmy VanCleve, and Johnny Dowdle to form the band Mountain Heart; a band that would break ground with its progressive approach to bluegrass music, and gain multiple IBMA nominations.
Barry stayed with the band through several personal changes until he stepped away from the music business in 2015. “I loved my time in Mountain Heart,” he recalled. “It just seemed like it was doubling every year there for a while. We were doing great up until about 2008. Then it just seemed to drop off a bunch. Steve Gulley left around then, so I hired Josh Shilling, who’s a great singer, by the way. Our music began to shift more towards the Americana style, which I love, but the traditional bluegrass audience just wouldn’t accept the newer sound. We couldn’t really find a niche for it. The music was great I thought, but we just couldn’t get enough work to keep it going. Everything seemed to happen at the same time too, the economy took a hit as well in 2008, and the record industry took a hit too. People just stopped buying CDs. We went from 50,000 CDs sold from one album, to just a few thousand on the next one. It was amazing the difference.”
By then, Barry had a family, so he figured it might be time to just get off the road. He took a job in sales and settled in. “It was a pretty good job until the company I was working for merged with another one, and basically squeezed the sales team out of a job,” he recalled. “It was one of those moments. When I left I had to think about what I could do next to earn a living. I thought, ‘all I’ve ever done is play music.” Not sure what to do about his situation, Barry went to work driving a travel coach for about two years.
Birth Of Something New
“I still wasn’t happy,” he said. “I wanted to play music. And in the meantime, while I was driving the coach, Jimmy had reminded me that I had all this material gathered up – he said, “You have all these songs, and you’ve never sung lead in your own band; why don’t you cut a solo project?’ So they did. “It was awesome,” Barry said. “It was me, Jimmy, Sam Bush, Brian Sutton, Ron Stewart, Jason Moore, and Rob Ickes all playing on it. It was a powerhouse band – it was so much fun.”
And in the process of putting that together, Barry and Jimmy’s creative juices began to flow. “We play so well together,” Barry told me. “We’ve been doing it for so many years. We just started talking about this band idea I had and we reached out to Darrell who was on board right away.”
Oh, that solo project you never got to hear … Barry says it’s coming out in July of 2020. “We’ve been sitting on it because I didn’t want to put it out in front of Appalachian Road Show.”
“We started working on this band last summer, and we started taking tour dates in January of 2019,” Barry commented. “Things have settled in for us now. We’ve got a good band. There’s a story to tell with this band. And we’ve got a way to tell it. Mountain Heart was a great run for me, a long run for me, but this is where I’m putting all my energy now. After being off the road for a while, it’s nice to get back into it with a project I believe in. We’re putting all our eggs in this basket.”
A New Approach
Barry, Darrell, and Jimmy are all from the Southern Appalachian mountain region. The working mission for the band is to bring to the forefront the cultural style and the musical styling of the Appalachian mountain people. “We didn’t know who we were going to hire to play bass and guitar to start with, but we knew we were a bluegrass band at heart. Nobody now is going to really sound like those original guys who first played this music; and we’re not trying to be a cover band of old time string band music either. We’re not trying to copy them as much as we’re trying to capture and present the spirit of who they were, and present it to people who haven’t heard the music in a way that it was passed down to us as we experienced it growing up as kids in that region.”
“Of course, we dress the part and try to look the part,” Barry said. “We wear suspenders and button up shirts with the button all the way up to the top. We wear the fedora and the derby hats. So we were branding it too. We’re going to do songs that point to the branding and focus that we’re after – not just go out there and play music – but play the part too.”
Choosing The Music
When it comes to song choices, Barry said the band will do some of both – reinterpreting older songs as well as performing originally penned material. “I don’t think we had anything completely original on the first one, but both Jimmy and Darrell have original songs on this new CD we’re working on. We like to mix it up too. On the first CD, we did a song that the Steve Miller Band recorded originally, called, “Dance, Dance, Dance.” We turned it into almost a square dance/hoe down kind of song that people could really dance to. I can remember when I was a kid people actually went to square dances. There was a guitar and a fiddle, and some guy calling out the dance steps. My mom’s generation and my grandparent’s generation, that’s something they did for fun; that was their entertainment. We also have a song from a band from Iceland that my daughter loves; an old gospel number, and a song from a guy called Craig Johnson. We’ve got coal mining songs, and train songs too. We’re just having fun being creative within the theme we’ve created for this band.”
Barry said the new project should be out sometime in March of 2020, right after the start of their new season, which gets under way with their performance at the Jekyll Island Festival in January. “We’re looking to perform 75 to 80 dates next year. That’s all we want,” he said. “We’re all getting older and have families, and we just don’t want to do 120-130 shows a year anymore.”
Most of the guys in the band dabble in a little side hustle here or there, but its full time when it comes to Appalachian Road Show. “I’m hoping it’s the last band I’ll be in,” Barry exclaimed. “We’re having a lot of fun and it feels like there is a lot of things we can do with this band. We’re treating this like our thing. I did Mountain Heart for 17 years, so I know it’s possible to make this a long term project. We’re sold out to it for sure. We’re each working on some aspect of it almost every day. To do it right, it has to be a full time job.”
By Greg Tutwiler