Normal Was Never The Plan.

A chat with North Carolina native Rod Abernethy on his newest album “Normal Isn’t Normal Anymore” & a few stories along the way.

Around The Country had the unique opportunity to have a chat with Raliegh-based composer and musician Rob Abernethy. Talks of early beginnings, hotel room dessert & steampunk robots ensued.

A Diet of Dylan and Disney

An early fan of compositions found in Disney media, Rod attributed Fantasia and Mickey Mouse for laying the groundwork of what would be a successful composing career. Rod recalled early in his childhood

“I’ll never forget watching Mickey Mouse being chased by these brooms walking brooms in the sorcerer’s apprentice. I’ll never forget that. It was scary and exciting at the same time.”

Rod also credited Bob Dylan and watching the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show as inspiration growing up. One of Dylan’s songs(“Oxford Town”) shows up as the last song on the album.

Steampunk Robots 

Among songwriting lies another creative pursuit that Rod enjoys. Rod builds custom steampunk robots out of parts. Included in his wildly successful Kickstarter campaign was a chance to own one of them. When asked about how or if those robots influenced his songwriting process or the overall creation of “Normal Isn’t Normal Anymore” Rod offered an insightful view of how he usually manages multiple creative interests:

It’s all coming from the same muse, from the same place. But I don’t really see the steampunk art influencing my music at all. It’s almost like you’re driving the same car but you’re on a different highway.

What I got from Rod is that he’s always on creatively, something that is an incredible gift to have.

There’s Stories In These Songs

This album is filled with stories and inspiration drawing from all different places and talking with Rod confirmed that. Let’s dive into the behind-the-scenes of the album’s creation. Normal Isn’t Normal Anymore was recorded at Skinny Elephant Recording in Nashville TN. Rod recruited Grammy-nominated(Rifles & Rosemary Beads) producer Neilson Hubbard & had Dylan Alldredge assisting with engineering. Neilson also contributed to the drums on this album! Other than Neilson, Rod called on these other great Nashville musicians to lay the foundation for his songs:

While recording the album, Rod came back to the point that Neilson as a producer really pushed him to let go of the perfection that he was chasing. 

“I will say Neilson was really good at not letting me go back and try to fix stuff or do it again. For example I would say Neilson I could play that part his reply: no we’ve got it”. 

From a listener’s perspective, it seems that Neilson was on the money about all of those decisions. The album sounds really solid and alive, really supporting the stories in the songs rather than taking away from them. A song with a cool story that I had the pleasure of learning about was the sixth track on the album “When Tobacco Was King”.

“When Tobacco Was King” was spurred out of this photo Rod had taken while walking through the streets of Winston Salem. The song was co-written with Susan Cattaneo, a friend, and collaborator. Susan had seen the Rods post on Instagram, and that turned into an all-day writing session. When it came to laying down the parts for the song, Rod mentioned:

“with When Tobacco Was King, we wanted to keep it kind of an intimate feeling. Guitarist Will Kimbrough came in and a lot of those parts are one-take parts.”

I thought that spoke volumes about how the record was produced and arranged. I firmly believe that the instrumentation of an album is just as important as the imagery and stories it tells. One can live without another, but when they both are present is when albums become memorable.

The third song on the album “Whiskey and Pie” also had a unique backstory as I would find out. Rod had written an instrumental on a 12 string and needed a title for the composition. While attending a Folk Alliance International conference at a hotel, Rod had stumbled upon a room in the hotel that was being used to host different folk artists. It was late at night, but the host was more than accommodating with a late-night snack for the musicians…Pie, and Whiskey to wash it down. Rod had his title.

The album as a whole is a really great listen. With Rod providing great stories, and the band providing great musicianship, it’s definitely an album that carries a lot of thought and effort. I thoroughly enjoyed the pacing and song choice of this album, as I felt every song had something unique to say. With Rod, I felt that “normal” was never the plan. An accomplished composer, maker of robots & an NC folk hero, Rod is anything but normal…and that’s an incredible place to be.

Check out Rod’s website for the latest details on show dates & news!

*Special thanks to Rod for chatting with me & providing all of the great photos!

Flatpicking, Family & Friends.

A conversation with seasoned bluegrass artist Larry Keel.

Around The Country recently had the chance to interview Larry Keel, a treasured bluegrass musician who’s seen a life of music. Here’s what he had to say:

What got you into flat-picking?  

Larry: I grew up in a very musical household, with both sides of my family having been musicians and music-lovers for generations. Very deep mountain traditions from the southwest corner of Virginia – my parents moved up from the family fold in Clintwood, Virginia, up to northern Virginia for work when the coal mines slowed way down in the 1970’s. My father played guitar and banjo and sang, my brother played guitar, my close uncle on my mother’s side played drop-thumb banjo and his band toured around with Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys for years (Ralph Stanley is from Clintwood also). My grandfather Joe Mullins played banjo too… he’s reputed to have ‘penned’ the song “I Got a Mule to Ride,” that Ralph Stanley recorded and performed. There was always music in the house growing up, and musicians were always stopping by. I guess I was just born with it burning in my blood. I wanted to play music just like all the cool, interesting folks that were in my world. My brother bought me a guitar of my own when I was 7 and I’ve never set it down. As far as why I flat pick the guitar, it’s just the way I learned to play since that was the way my brother and dad played… and I loved the flat-picking style that I heard guitar greats like Doc Watson, Clarence White, and Tony Rice playing. That got me really fired up to get technically advanced like they were.  

Do you have any memorable shows you’ve played? 

Larry: Playing with Tony Rice at MerleFest, playing with my brother Gary at MerleFest, playing Carnegie Hall and Red Rocks Amphitheater. Getting to play with my wife and with friends and musical legends in some of the most beautiful places in the world… and I’m ready for more!

Photo courtesy of Angel Hendrix

Who are your favorite up-and-coming bluegrass artists?

Larry: I’m way into The Infamous Stringdusters, Billy Strings, Sierra Hull, the Steep Canyon Rangers, the Songs From The Road Band and Front Country, just to name a few really talented acts and artists out there killin’ it.

I always love to learn about the recording process of albums. Tell me about the recording process of your latest album One.   

Larry: For this particular project, we recorded it in the basement of my road manager’s house, completely live. The setting was totally comfortable, familiar, relaxed, close to home, etc., so that automatically makes for a really natural and centered feel going into things. The ‘live’ part means that we didn’t use any studio layering of tracks, no separation booths, no gimmicks, no fixes of anything; what we played that day is exactly what you get in each song, as if you were hearing us perform right in front of you like at a live show. That is the truest representation of what we wanted to say with these tunes. Recording the album this way made it genuine and fun for us, hopefully, that comes through to the listener. The other important factor is the finishing stage of the process, which was having the recording mastered by Bill Woolf. The best!

Many thanks to Larry for taking the time to answer these questions! Catch him at any of his live shows through February!

Son of A Songwriter.

Talented Texas transplant Ben Danaher on being a 21st-century songwriter.

If you want to learn about the life of Ben Danaher, all you have to do is listen. Ben credits his dad the late Bob Danaher (an accomplished Texas songwriter in his own right) for the grit and determination he needed to weather the hardships of being a songwriter in the modern age. Hailing from Huffman, Texas, he made the move to Nashville shortly after his brother Kelly was tragically shot and killed in his home. During early writing sessions in Nashville, Ben explains:

I had just moved to Nashville after I had lost my brother, and for a while this was the first time I was talking about it.

A Special Songwriter.

Like many great songwriters, Ben chose to channel his hard life experiences through song, resulting in a raw, unfiltered look into the life of a songwriter. Within Nashville and country music, Ben Danaher is a straight-shooter. His ability to connect with listeners through deeply personal stories puts him on my list of songwriters that I feel are changing the landscape of the songwriting mecca. A part of the reason his album “Still Feel Lucky” has been received so positively.

“Still Feel Lucky” embodies not only personal stories but harrowing truths about Ben’s personal loss and hardships. The album was done live with his touring band. Ben explained the process of recording an album live with his band saying:

we rehearsed the album 6-7 times before recording so everyone really knew their parts. I remember we did around 7 songs in the first day. 

Live at The Fillmore

Ben took the stage at The Fillmore in Charlotte opening for Aaron Lewis on his “State I’m In” Tour. Armed with a worn Gibson acoustic, Ben opened up the show to a warm response. The crowd drew ever-increasingly quiet throughout his set, really relating to the hardships he’s faced. Referencing his dad throughout his set really put into perspective the weight his songs carry. The songs don’t reference trends in country music, and they aren’t trying to fill a songwriting quota. I believe crowds want the authentic, relatable nature of country music back. Ben can and does provide that. And people are listening.

You can find Ben on tour as he tours the country through December. Thanks to Ben for answering my questions!!