Supergroup Appalachian Road Show Confronts ‘Tribulations’ With Old Bluegrass Soul

Jul 30, 2020

When they titled their 2020 album Tribulation, the guys in the bluegrass band Appalachian Road Show had no idea they’d be releasing it into the teeth of a global pandemic and an economic crisis. The veteran musicians did not intend to proclaim that the End Times are upon us, only to shine a light on the people and legacy of their home region, where resilience and fortitude are a way of life.

As the news unfolded during and after the March 27 release, “Every line became more heavy,” says fiddler Jim VanCleve about the album-capping title track, which opens: “Trials troubles tribulations, such as never been before.” The song, written by Virginia folk musician Estill C. Ball in first half of the 20th century, falls in the lineage of apocalyptic gospel with haunting harmony rooted in the primitive Baptist church and the early sound of the Stanley Brothers. And somehow this became both timely and timeless. With bluegrass at its most beguiling, esoteric and traditional, the very young band Appalachian Road Show claimed five nominations for this October’s International Bluegrass Music Association Awards. The song “Little Black Train” from its 2019 debut album was tapped as a possible Gospel Recording of the Year. The quintet was nominated as New Artist Of The Year (for the second time). And perhaps most significant, Tribulation, released just before the eligibility window closed, was nominated as Album of the Year.

High concept but down-to-earth, Appalachian Road Show seems to be what the core fans are hungry for right now, which SiriusXM bluegrass broadcasting icon Kyle Cantrell says are up-to-date skills and sensibilities coupled with songs “that thematically at least, come from another time.” He adds that “we don’t usually see projects released with such care and skill devoted to the programming, theme, and flow as is evident with their first two records.” Both recordings feature voice-over introductions and interludes that establish the geography and mission of the albums and songs – to uplift a region in all its facets, from its music to its crafts and survival skills.

Though it’s a new band, the Road Show’s members are anything but new in the upper reaches of professional bluegrass. VanCleve and banjo player Barry Abernathy were already established musicians when they co-founded Mountain Heart in 1998. That band evolved far from its traditional origins after the founding lineup left it in the hands of colleagues some years ago. Meanwhile, songwriter, singer and mandolinist Darrell Webb led his own namesake band for a decade playing the circuit but never perhaps receiving the recognition his keen, emotional tenor singing deserved. Sometime around early 2018, those three musicians started talking over the idea of a band that went beyond the usual formula, one that both had a story and told a story.

“One of the things that’s different about this and I think paramount to the whole thing is the fact that we bring a narrative element to our shows,” VanCleve said in an interview at last Fall’s World of Bluegrass in Raleigh. “We’re lending backstory and emotional gravity to the songs that we’re singing, by way of narrative and history. And there are a lot of other production elements we’re going to bring to the stage as soon as we’re able.”

At the time of that conversation, Appalachian Road Show, which also includes veteran bass player Todd Phillips and 23-year-old phenom guitarist Zeb Snyder, was working on song selection and pre-production as they prepared to record Tribulation. The pieces were in place for an even more cohesive and unified project than album #1, if only because the concept had the time to settle in. “This (album) came together because of a team effort more so than the first one,” Abernathy said in a July interview. “Darrell was still trying to get in the mindset. He had his own band for nine years. It’s hard to pick up somebody else’s vision mid-stride and just start running with it.”

“It’s got that raw edge, more than a lot of the bands you hear,” Webb told me about how he feels the band’s strengths. “That’s what we’re trying to capture – that authenticity, that raw sound you heard back in the 20s and 30s. We’re trying to capture the spirit and the soul of that music.”

While those decades pre-date the birth of bluegrass per se, the lusty spirit of the string band can be heard early in the album when Webb sings lead with Abernathy’s harmony on “Goin’ To Bring Her Back,” a lightning-quick, banjo-powered number about a guy who’s ready to propose to a young lady who seems to have up and left. And Webb’s skill with Jimmie Rodgers style acoustic blues can be heard on the old Dorsey Dixon/Wade Mainer song “Sales Tax On The Women.” These are tunes that indicate Appalachian Road Show has time for wit and mirth amid the lonesome woe. The band’s instrumental polish stands out on the VanCleve original “The Appalachian Road.” Core cannon bluegrass tunes are here as well, including “99 Years And One Dark Day” and the venerable “Hard Times,” which sets up the record’s stark finale.

The film-like spoken word interludes set a tone and paint pictures in the mind’s eye. They might be skippable on subsequent listens through this stout and scintillating album, but the effect – to deepen the experience – is unmistakable.

The IBMA Awards will be produced as a virtual event this year on October 1. For a full list of nominees go here.

Audio of "Goin' To Bring Her Back" from Tribulation