As the hoary saying goes, old folkies never die, they just keep on playing the same song over and over again. At 67 years old, Rod Abernethy’s been around, and he’s lived long enough to remember the folk revival scare of the early 1960s. Sure, he would have been a kid then, but as someone the same age I can speak with authority about early memories of those artists and issues from back in the day. So, it’s not a surprise that Abernethy covers of Bob Dylan’s “Oxford Town” with its lyrics about overt racism sounds. It sounds as timely today as it did in 1962. The presence of systemic racism still exists and stains our society.
That’s Abernethy’s only cover. The rest of the material is comprised of original songs that reflect some of the more affirmative and encouraging aspects of contemporary life. He still believes that hope is “Just Around the Corner”, that “There’s Always Something” one did or didn’t do that proves pivotal to where our lives are now, and that the one constant is things are always “Changing”. The paradox proves the rule. Things are the same but different.
As the title song of his latest release explains, “Normal Isn’t Normal Anymore”. That song was written before the recent pandemic. His explicit concern is that “truth isn’t truth anymore”. More communication results in more confusion. As a result, bullies rule and society is in disarray. The singer’s passion is clear. He sympathetically picks his guitar while a strings drone in the background. It’s artful and entertaining, but Abernethy is just rhetorically building a straw argument that does more harm than good. If you think life under President Trump was bad, go back and read about Presidents Andrew Jackson or Woodrow Wilson, or just learn about daily life for “marginal” Americans (whether because of race, gender, class, immigrant status, etc. during almost any period in the past. While the lyrics on the rest of the album suggest Abernethy is a compassionate, progressive human being, the inherent philosophy of the title song is merely the mirror image is “Make America Great Again”. America was never so great as we’d like to believe. It could be worse now.
Abernethy is a talented musician, a master acoustic guitarist, and award-winning composer for film, TV, and video games. His guitar playing evokes comparisons to such luminaries as Leo Kottke, John Fahey, and Tommy Emmanuel. He sings with a slight Southern accent in a conversational style, articulating every word. The politics of his songs may be overly simplistic, but the details on the other material reveal a more poetic sensibility. The best songs such as “My Father was a Quiet Man”, “Another Year”, and “Get in the Car” capture the vivid sentiments through the words as well as the musical excellence
Abernathy can play! The two instrumental tracks, “Whiskey and Pie” and Over the Fence” reveal his mighty dexterity and imagination on the acoustic guitar. The new album was produced by Grammy-nominated producer Neilson Hubbard (Mary Gauthier, Kim Richey) and backed up by fine Nashville talent including Will Kimbrough on guitar, John Teer of Chatham County Line on mandolin, Joe Newberry on banjo, Pattie Kinlaw on fiddle, with Caitlin Cary and Susan Cattaneo on background vocals. The music sounds great from a quality standpoint.
This record was recorded during a more innocent time—at least in terms of COVID and the insurgency—and implies the world could still change into someplace better. That’s the truth. Does it really matter if it’s normal?