By Kip Tabb | Outer Banks Voice on October 6, 2021
If there is a bluegrass supergroup touring the country right now, it could well be Appalachian Road Show.
They just took home Instrumental Group of the Year and New Artist of the Year at the 2021 IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) Awards held in Raleigh. Members of the band have won a number of Grammy awards as well as IBMA awards, and they have been a big part of the bluegrass scene for decades.
They’ll be taking the stage at the Outer Banks Bluegrass Festival, on Oct. 23.
There’s a tendency to think of genres of music as strict categories that define what a band or musical group will sound like. But it’s not that simple. And for Appalachian Road Show, there is a lot about the band that is certainly traditional bluegrass — all acoustic instruments and no drum is part of what defines a bluegrass group.
But at times, the group will take their music into unexpected places.
“I Wish the Wars Were all Over” is the plaintive cry of a woman fearing for her lover’s life as he goes off to war. The arrangement the Appalachian Road Show has created takes on the feel of an Irish or Celtic lament, yet the piece never slows down, the rhythm driven by Barry Abernathy’s banjo and Jim VanCleve’s fiddle.
They also have covered “Broken Bones” by the Icelandic group Kaleo, a song with a distinctly blues feel. VanCleve and Abernathy put the group together in 2018. And to VanCleve, songs like “I Wish the Wars Were all Over” or “Broken Bones” are not a departure from what they are as a group, rather it is being true to the music they are performing.
“I think one cool thing about this band is that the only goal with Appalachian Road Show is just to be authentic in whatever we decide to do,” he said
The youngest member of the group is guitarist Zeb Snyder. “I believe he’s literally one of the finest guitar players drawing breaths right now. He’s incredible,” VanCleve said.
Even though he is only in his 20’s, Snyder has been on stage for a number of years with the Snyder Family Band and his ability to perform in a wide range of musical styles is remarkable.
VanCleve and Abernathy have a long history together.
“I would say, probably 1999, I started working with Barry Abernathy. We were both members of Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver at that time,” VanCleve recalled.
They stayed with Quicksilver for about a year, then went out on their own, forming Mountain Heart.
“We were in that group together for about seventeen years and then we, we all kind of split and did different things,” VanCleve said.
Darrell Webb, on mandolin and vocals, has been nominated for a Grammy and had his own group, the Darrell Webb Band, for a number of years. There’s not a weak singer in the band, but Webb’s powerful vocals and range really stand out.
If there is royalty in bluegrass music, bass player Todd Phillips is in the court. He was one of the founding members of the David Grisman Quintet, the 1970’s band that created dawg music, a remarkable blend of bluegrass and jazz that redefined how the instruments of a traditional bluegrass band were envisioned. He went on to play with the late Tony Rice, a bluegrass guitarist who truly pushed the boundaries of what bluegrass music could be.
“If you could list five albums that were super important in my formative years of music, Todd was on every single one of them,” VanCleve said.
After leaving Mountain Heart, Abernathy and VanCleve knew they wanted to work together again, but it took a while.
“The idea for Appalachian Road Show was kind of a collaborative thing where I had one idea a few years earlier and that kind of percolated in [Abernathy’s] subconscious, and then he had a different spin on that idea. It was a just meant to be kind of thing, but it took years to come together,” VanCleve said.
The Appalachian Road Show arrangements bring the instruments together to create a tightly focused song that always features remarkable solo work. Yet what sets the group apart from so many other bluegrass bands, or other live performance groups, is how powerful, intricate and well-blended their vocals are.
Vocal harmonies are an important part of bluegrass music, but the precision and complexity of what Appalachian Road Show brings to the stage is an important part of what makes them distinctive.
That ability to blend guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle and bass with voice is a key element in how VanCleve sees the group telling their story.
“The material we pick, there’s a reason we pick it. There’s a narrative element to our live presentations and even on the records if you’ve listened,” he said.
And it gives a suggestion as to where Appalachian Road Show and their music may be heading.
“The narrative aspect, we want to develop that and present that more in a theater context. We’ve got visions for ourselves of a grander production with more production value with lights and multimedia…the storytelling aspects as the show unfolds,” he said.