Hear It First: Appalachian Road Show, 'Tribulation'

by Henry Carrigan (@henry.carrigan), Folk Alley

Appalachian Road Show Folk Alley Hear It First
photo by: Micah Schweinsberg

Appalachian Road Show’s new album, Tribulation, perfectly speaks to our dark and unsettling times. On the one hand, the songs embrace the trials and tribulations of uncertain days filled with despair and loss and suffering, when any glimmer of hope only dimly shines through the darkness. On the other hand, they celebrate the community that gathers together in the face of such tribulation to celebrate love, to dance and to sing of the possibilities of redemption, to welcome home the weary from their travails.

Even more, though, Tribulation is an immersive experience of songs and spoken word that also tells a story of the trials and heartaches that the Appalachian Mountain people faced while settling this region of America. From the opening spoken word track “The Spirit of Appalachia,” which frames the entire album, to the title track which closes the album, Appalachian Road Show (Barry Abernathy on banjo, Jim VanCleve on fiddle, Zeb Snyder on guitar, Todd Phillips on bass, Darrell Webb on mandolin) narrates the story of a people and a region and captures the resilient spirit of the culture in the vibrant and vital spirit of the region’s music. As banjoist Barry Abernathy says, “Appalachian music and its stories have been passed down to us, and we’re now passing our own interpretations of this to a new generation, while also shedding a reverent light on this culture,” says Abernathy. “We want to not only keep these traditions alive, but also honor the strong and dedicated individuals who made lives in the mountains over the past 200 years. Appalachian Road Show is meant to be more of a cultural experience rather than simply just a collection of songs.”

“The Spirit of Appalachia” tells a compelling story of the heartaches and trials of Appalachia, offering a mini-history of the region and the ways that music is deeply woven into and expresses its character. The narrator’s soothing voice paints a portrait that will color and provide the shape of the journey we travel on the album: “Banjo tunes, Old World ballads, jack tales, and shape-note hymns carrying the stories of yesterday into today…the very heart of Appalachia is embodied in the tales that are woven together in song to create the rich cultural heritage the region is known for. To understand the soul of Appalachia to understand the hardships, trials, and the tribulations of America.” The traditional tune “Don’t Want to Die in the Storm” sets a tone for the album. The band sings the first verse in a mournful a cappella plea that the pilgrim can avoid death under harsh conditions. The tempo picks up following the opening as the instruments layer sound upon sound, driven by Zeb Snyder’s cascading guitar notes. The band adds a final verse that offers the hope that storms will pass, opening with the line “Lord Jesus he calmed the storm.”

The bluegrass rambler “Goin’ to Bring Her Back” features Abernathy’s banjo chasing Jim VanCleve’s fiddle around; it’s the tale of a lover setting off in search of the girl who’s taken off over the mountains. The jauntiness of the song mirrors the humor of the lyrics. The somber and poignant ballad “I Wish the Wars Were All Over” tells the sad tale of Pretty Polly who disguises herself as a soldier—dressing herself in a “young man’s array”—and sets out to search for her young Billy in every company she passes by. It recalls the Scottish and Irish ballads that permeated the music of the porches and hollers of the Appalachian mountains. Sprightly fiddles, meandering mandolins, nimble guitars, and rolling banjos weave under and around each other in Jim VanCleve’s original “The Appalachian Road,” a lissome tune that encourages us to kick up our heels. The band delivers a haunting a cappella version of Larry Sparks’ “The Gospel Train” with its refrain that asks who’s going to be on the train that is bound for heaven, while they offer an energetic take on Robert Earl Keen’s murder ballad “99 Years and One Dark Day.” The highlight of the album might just be Appalachian Road Show’s stunning and exquisitely rendered version of the standard “Hard Times Come Again No More.” The sober vocals and spare music capture perfectly the weariness of the singer and the constant plea for deliverance from hard times. The album closes fittingly with the band’s stirring bluegrass gospel version of Estil C. Ball’s “Tribulations,” whose lyrics come straight out of the biblical book of Revelation and starkly captures the trials and tribulations of dark times.

As the band says, they have “gone to the greatest of lengths to preserve the dignity and the authenticity of these songs…approaching each piece with a sincere respect for its original emotional intentions.” Tribulation carries us deep down into the hollers and up along the mountain ridges with Appalachian Road Show immerses in the enduring music of the region.

Tribulation is out this Friday, 3/27, and available for pre-save/pre-order: HERE

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