All great music serves a purpose, but for the members of Appalachian Road Show, their collective goal transcends mere entertainment. The award-winning acoustic outfit is on a mission to illuminate the history, challenges, and rewards of life in that storied region and celebrate the spirit of the Appalachian people who call it home. They did so on their sophomore album Tribulation and are back again on the aptly titled Jubilation, a colorful song-filled journey chronicling not just the past but the present.
The album begins with a voice synonymous with Appalachia as the legendary Dolly Parton introduces the project, gently reminding listeners: With faith and resilience, Appalachians have endured cold, dark winters, punishing work and hunger, floods and fires. But pride in this place and our people endures, even into the modern age. Every loss is mourned, and the sunrise of every new day inhaled as a blessing from God. For we know that for every dark valley on our journey, we will arrive on another peak. Every tribulation is answered, in time, with Jubilation.
Parton’s narration sets the tone for the tales that follow. Jubilation includes revivals of timeless tales alongside poignant new songs and covers of Bob Dylan, Pokey LaFarge and Led Zeppelin. Band members Barry Abernathy (banjo, nosehorn, whistles, vocals), Todd Phillips (bass, bowed bass, vibraslap, vocals), Zeb Snyder (guitars, slide guitar, vocals), Jim VanCleve (fiddle, vocals) and Darrell Webb (mandolin, octave mandolin, banjo, vocals) masterfully bring each song to life with skillful musicianship and pure passion.
“Our last project, Tribulation, was a heavier album. It was also released into the teeth of a global pandemic and so, it became very timely and even more poignant,” VanCleve shares. “So, on Jubilation what we wanted to do was to rise up from that heaviness of spirit, to overcome the spirit of trials and of tribulation, become triumphant, to step forward into light, and to move towards a spirit of jubilation. It mirrors the spirit of the Appalachians and the fortitude of the people of that region, and we believe, that of all humanity. Overcoming trials and tribulations is woven right into the people and it’s woven right into the music as well, so it felt like the obvious next chapter for us. It felt like time to turn the page. Perhaps we all feel the need to move towards light after such a dark and heavy season.”
VanCleve and his cohorts are more than capable of taking listeners on just such a journey. Prior to joining forces as Appalachian Road Show in 2018, each member had already carved successful and even iconic careers in acoustic music. Grammy winning fiddler VanCleve, who has known Abernathy since he was 17, is a veteran musician who previously toured with Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Mountain Heart and Josh Turner. Abernathy’s resume includes stints with Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver and IIIrd Tyme Out before launching Mountain Heart. Darrell Webb, in addition to heading his own band, toured with Rhonda Vincent, The Lonesome River Band, Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper, Dailey and Vincent, and J.D. Crowe and the New South. Phillips is a two-time Grammy winner and legend in the bluegrass community, a founding member of the David Grisman Quintet, as well as having recorded on the quintessential Bluegrass Album Band series and with guitar legend, Tony Rice. Snyder rounds out the quintet. Often described as an “old soul,” the 26-year-old guitarist’s playing reflects diverse influences ranging from Doc Watson all the way to Stevie Ray Vaughn. His fellow band members as well as his flat-picking peers are all quick to attest, he’s a future Guitar Player of the Year award winner.
Impressive as they may be, the sum of Appalachian Road Show and of Jubilation is even greater than its parts. The character, maturity, and chemistry of this ensemble is where the true magic lives. “There’s just a kinship and mutual friendship and also a musical identity that we all share,” Abernathy says of his bandmates. “When we are playing together on stage or in the studio, we can look at each other and just smile because you can feel that everybody is just loving it and pouring their whole heart into everything they do. That means so much when you are doing this for a living.”
Bursting onto the musical scene less than three years ago, their musical accomplishments have already earned them numerous accolades—including both Instrumental Group of the Year and New Artist at the 2021 IBMA Awards—as well as the respect of other luminaries. “I am so proud and honored to have gotten the opportunity to sing with the wonderful Appalachian Road Show,” Parton says. “They’re wonderful singers, wonderful musicians, and above all that, wonderful human beings. I was honored to have them sing on my last album Run, Rose, Run. Appalachian Road Show’s new project Jubilation continues in their tradition of excellence. It is a fine example of music in the Appalachian tradition and spirit.”
Considered the thinking man’s string band, the members of Appalachian Road Show are very intentional in each aspect of the albums they create. “We spend months thinking about small details and trying to make it all as artful as we’re capable of,” VanCleve says. “We don’t ever want to just slap a bunch of songs to tape. We intend to try to create art. We’re looking for a deeper meaning. That’s our ultimate goal.”
Their unique-to-the-genre, narrative-driven approach is definitely resonating with fans and has quickly raised the group to ‘headliner status’ at major festivals and theaters everywhere. Jubilation, with its fun and endearing personality, promises to continue this trend.
In speaking more directly about the songs themselves on Jubilation, “‘Blue Ridge Mountain Baby’ is such a happy song,” Abernathy says of the album’s lead single and video, which he co-wrote with VanCleve. “It’s the first song on the record and it really sets the tone. You can almost feel how much fun you’re about to have! Next, we pulled a song from Pokey LaFarge, ‘La La Blues,’ and it’s it’s even more fun! It’s been going over great with crowds. So, the first two songs on the record are very, very jubilant, very happy, sing along type songs. We’re playing them on stage already and people are turning flips over them.”
Webb, who introduced his bandmates to “La La Blues,” happily agrees that it’s become a favorite during their live shows. “We’ve been teaching the audience to sing, “La la la, I’m so happy I’m singing la, la, la,’ so now you have everybody in the audience pretty much singing along the whole time and it’s just been great.”
One of the most fiery songs on the project is “Hard Times in the Mines,” a sort of coal miner’s Union organizing anthem that has special significance for Webb, as his father was a coal miner in West Virginia who succumbed to lung cancer. “That’s a song that Barry found, performed by ‘Aunt Molly Jackson’” Webb relates. “We listened to her version, and it was quite a bit slower. I said, ‘This song tells a good story, but I think we should do it fast and turn it into a barn burnin’ grass tune.’ That’s definitely what it turned out to be!”
Abernathy and VanCleve penned the original “Tonight I’ll See you in My Dreams,” and though it’s a new song, it was written to have that old time feel. “It’s reminiscent of 1953 Flatt and Scruggs era,” VanCleve says. “Their band was so iconic, and we absolutely love that groove and that whole aesthetic. We were actually rehearsing for the record, and we had rehearsed for like 10 hours that day. Barry and I were just relaxing down in my studio, and he said, ‘I wish we had a song that felt like that. I feel like that would really kind of encapsulate what it is we’re trying to do.’ And I said, ‘Well let’s write one!’ It doesn’t happen like that often, and I’m not exaggerating, but within 30-45 minutes it was done. The guys loved it, and the next day we worked it up and then recorded a few weeks later.”
One of the most buoyant offerings on the record is “The Ballad of Kidder Cole.” “The song is autobiographical, and the man who wrote it was named Felix Eugene Alley, just as first line of the song states” VanCleve says. “He was from Haywood County, N.C. where I grew up. I didn’t know about Mr. Alley until we set about working up this song. He wrote a tale about a girl named “Kidder Cole”, who he tried to dance with and win the affections of for the entire song! Felix was relatively unsuccessful with ‘Ms. Cole’ it would seem, but the whole thing has such a fun tongue in cheek vibe about it. The way we ended up doing the song, it has a lot of fun moments. The backdrop for where the story takes place is at square dances back in the barn dance era in Appalachia, so we took some of the classic dance and fiddle tunes and weaved them into and around the melody of that song. It’s so much fun to play!”
Even though the album title is Jubilation there are some somber moments on the album. “Darkness needs light, and balance is necessary for either to be perceived in their fullness,” VanCleve says. “If there weren’t somber moments, the very jubilation we’re aiming at with this project, it couldn’t feel as real I don’t believe. The highs couldn’t achieve their proper poignancy without something of a counter in just the right spot. It wasn’t necessarily a goal at the start, but as we went along, that sense of artistic balance just felt more and more like the right thing. It was as if our collective musical compass was leading us to provide a few darker colors to balance out the picture we were painting. But, then, how do we choose the right material to provide proper balance and perspective? What gives a song it’s gravity? Ultimately, we chose the songs that felt the most emotionally charged, but which also felt the most stylistically relevant to Appalachian Road Show as a collective.”
Providing a heavy dose of this sense of this balance is “Graveyard Fields,” an instrumental written by VanCleve. “It has a darker melody, in a way it almost feels medieval to me. So it felt like it needed a title with some darkness to it,” VanCleve explains. “I spent most of my childhood in the western North Carolina mountains. The Blue Ridge Parkway was my backyard and if you were to drive up to the Parkway and head east, it wouldn’t be long that you’d come to a place called The Graveyard Fields, which is this mountain top that is kind of eerily bald with the exception of all these little outcroppings and dead tree trunks everywhere. Apparently, either the first settlers or the Native Americans thought all those outcroppings looked like gravestones. I was told as a child that if you are up on top of the mountain during a storm, lightning will strike that area, and I just imagined what that might look like. There’s some gravity to that mental image. I felt like it embodied the same spirit as the melody of this tune as well, so that’s kind of how they got married to one another.”
Abernathy is well known as a band member who often brings unique cover ideas and “Gallows Pole” is a prime example. Covered by Led Zeppelin and an eclectic few others, one might not expect a group taking its name from the Appalachian region to attempt such a thing. “That’s Barry’s brainchild,” Webb says. “He started talking about it, so I looked up Led Zeppelin’s version of it. Barry also had listened to Lead Belly and some others who had performed it down through the years. We got together for rehearsal and after trying a couple ideas that we didn’t just love, Zeb was like, ‘Let’s try a slide guitar.’ We were at Jimmy’s house and Zeb didn’t have a slide with him, so they went down to his garage and got a socket. Zeb put it on his finger and used a socket as a slide and it kind of launched from there. Once he put the slide on, the whole thing went in a new direction that we all got excited about.”
The closing track “Brother Green” is a particularly powerful moment. “Truly, while you are performing a song like ‘Brother Green’, you need to try to stay out of the way of the lyric,” VanCleve says of the heart wrenching song about a dying soldier. “You want to let that lyric lay there and do what it does. Let it penetrate and become real for the listener, and even for you as a player. It’s so emotional, so raw. I believe we cut it just the one time. Barry sang it live and it was such a moment. While not exactly what you might expect from an album called Jubilation, I say, ‘balance in all things’. And if you listen to the very, very last line of the song, there is hope and joy and jubilation in there if you look for it. The soldier ultimately says he’s going home to be ‘with my Jesus’ as his last words. It’s a heavy moment, but right there, right at the end of the song, at the end of the album, there’s still that very, very real moment of this dying soldier’s true jubilation at the end.”
Life and death, love and longing, tragedy and triumph are woven throughout the songs on Jubilation. It takes the listener on an emotional journey that will both illicit tears and cause toes to tap joyfully. But, ever true to its namesake, you keep the sense that a smile will never be very far away, even while a moment of sorrow is passing. Yet through it all, the foundation lies in the power of the Appalachian spirit. “It’s a cultural experience,” Abernathy says of the band’s music and mission. “At the core of our mission is the history and the enduring spirit. When we record or perform a live show, it’s not just a collection of songs, there’s a theme and a point to what we do, to every place we go musically. American music, pure American music, first started to come together in Appalachia, and we’re all akin to it.”
Like the Appalachian musicians before them, the band feels a responsibility to their art and culture. From their authenticity comes a true sense of authority, as if you’re getting it all straight from the source, and, that’s precisely the case. “Our motto has become ‘Authenticity never goes out of style’,” adds VanCleve. “We’ve focused on being true to ourselves and it’s been a perfect recipe so far. We couldn’t be happier and we all just feel so blessed. We want to be good stewards of what the Lord has handed us.” This statement and the posture it portrays surely sound like that of a spirit of Jubilation.