Appalachian Road Show's New Album Confronts 'Tribulations' Past And Present

Apr 16, 2020
Originally published on April 16, 2020 7:40 pm

Appalachian Road Show — a band formed in 2018 by the independently acclaimed musicians Barry Abernathy, Darrell Webb, Zeb Snyder, Jim VanCleve and Todd Phillips — was just getting ready to release an album full of traditional songs about hardship and heartache when the real-life modern crisis of the coronavirus struck.

Fittingly, the folk and bluegrass supergroup's new release is called Tribulation.

"About the time we started to release this record, [the] COVID-19 epidemic started reaching the top of the national news," says Jim VanCleve, who plays fiddle in the band. "Next thing we know, we're living in hard times, trials and tribulations."

NPR's Art Silverman spoke to Jim VanCleve and Appalachian Road Show's lead singer and banjoist Barry Abernathy about releasing an album of old songs of hardship into a world in crisis, the ancestry of Appalachian music and occasionally finding the funnier side of heartache. Listen to the radio version at the audio link above and read on for highlights of the interview.

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Interview Highlights

On the album's accidentally prescient title

Jim VanCleve: We had made the decision back in the summer that this project was going to be called Tribulation, and we had a great old-timey song picked out with that name. The whole album speaks to the human spirit and the human condition and the trials and tribulations that we all have to endure. We set out to start the record, and then about the time we started to release this record, [the] COVID-19 epidemic started reaching the top of the national news, and next thing we know, we're living in hard times, trials and tribulations.

The opportunity to express your spirit through music, it's a human need. We're lucky to live in times when we're confined to our house, [that] we can still reach out to one another with music.

On the influence of the British Isles and West Africa on Appalachian music

VanCleve: The majority of the settlers that landed in the Appalachian region — I think over half of the people that settled in the region — were of Scots-Irish origin. I play the fiddle in our band and fiddle is very much associated with the Scots-Irish ancestry, and then on the other side of that, the African ancestry of the banjo as a West African instrument.

Barry Abernathy: Those things came together and merged. To me, there's not a big separation in the two separate genres right now, or even all of what you could call folk music.

VanCleve: When you hear banjo, and you hear fiddle together, you're hearing Scots-Irish ancestry and you're hearing African American ancestry. A cool snapshot of that would be "I Wish The Wars Were All Over."

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On portraying different musical approaches to hardship on two songs on the record

Abernathy: This song ["I Wish The Wars Were All Over"] is a classic tale of love that was lost through war, through a battle, back in the Old World. But our take on that was pretty cold and pretty dark, but Jim wrote a tune on our new album, which is our first single, it's the same tale, but it's uplifting. It's a funny take on love and how somebody lost love. It's a whole different way of losing love.

VanCleve: The heaviness of "Wish the Wars Were All Over" — it is a love lost kind of song. ... [But "Goin' To Bring Her Back,"] it's a tongue-in-cheek lost love kind of song. This guy, he is in love with this girl and she does not seem to care. This song is much more uplifting than the last and in times like this, I think we could all use that.

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NPR's Art Silverman and Sami Yenigun produced and edited the audio of this interview for broadcast. Editorial intern Jon Lewis adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

For centuries, the people of Appalachia have relied on folk music in times of hardship. The group Appalachian Road Show grew up in that age-old tradition, and now they have released an album that puts a 21st-century spin on an old-time sound.

JIM VANCLEVE: This is Jim VanCleve. I play fiddle with the Appalachian Road Show. I'm coming to you from Nashville, Tenn., today.

BARRY ABERNATHY: This is Barry Abernathy. I'm coming to you from Ellijay, Ga. And I'm the banjo player and lead and harmony singer in Appalachian Road Show.

VANCLEVE: We had made the decision back in the summer that this project was going to be called "Tribulation."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRIBULATIONS")

APPALACHIAN ROAD SHOW: (Singing) Trials, troubles, tribulations...

VANCLEVE: The whole album speaks to the human spirit and the human condition and trials and tribulations that we all have to endure. And then, about the time we started to release this record, COVID-19 epidemic started reaching the top of the national news. And next thing we know, we're living in hard times, trials and tribulations.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRIBULATIONS")

APPALACHIAN ROAD SHOW: (Singing) When the fire comes down from heaven and the blood shall fill the sea, I'll be carried home by Jesus and forever with him be.

VANCLEVE: The opportunity to express, you know, your spirit through music, it's a human need. We're lucky to live in times - when we're confined to our house, we can still reach out to one another with music. You know, the majority of the settlers that landed in the Appalachian region, they think over half of the people that settled in the region were of Scots-Irish origin. I play the fiddle in our band. And the fiddle is very much associated with the Scots-Irish ancestry. And then on the other side of that, the African ancestry. The banjo was a West African instrument.

ABERNATHY: Those things came together and merged. To me, there's not a big separation in two separate genres right now or even all the - you could call folk music.

VANCLEVE: When you hear banjo and you hear fiddle together, you're hearing Scots-Irish ancestry, and you're hearing African American history. A cool snapshot of that would be "I Wish The Wars Were All Over" (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WISH THE WARS WERE ALL OVER")

APPALACHIAN ROAD SHOW: (Singing) Down by deep water, where the sweet linden stands, I saw pretty Polly wringing her hand. The song that she sang made the whole grove to ring. My Billy has left me to fight for a king, and I wish the wars were all over.

ABERNATHY: This song is a classic tale of love that was lost through war back in the old world, but our take on that was pretty cold and pretty dark. But Jim's wrote a tune on our new album which was our first single. It's the same tale, but it's uplifting. It's a funny take on love and how somebody lost love. It's a whole different way of losing love, I guess, would be the way to put it.

VANCLEVE: The heaviness of "Wish The Wars Were All Over," it is a love lost kind of song. This song here that we're going to play now, it's kind of a tongue-in-cheek lost love kind of song. This guy, he is in love with this girl, and she does not seem to care.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOIN' TO BRING HER BACK")

APPALACHIAN ROAD SHOW: (Singing) Oh, lord, I'm going cross the yonder mountain, (unintelligible) on the choo-choo train. And sweet gal, you see, has gone to Tennessee, and I'm going to bring her back.

VANCLEVE: This song is a lot more uplifting than the last. And in times like this, I think we all could use that.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPALACHIAN ROAD SHOW'S "GOIN' TO BRING HER BACK")

CHANG: That's Barry Abernathy and Jim VanCleve, two members of Appalachian Road Show. Their new album is called "Tribulation." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.