For the last decade, Kevin Abernathy has been releasing an album every couple of years, each one showcasing a slightly different side of his musicianship. He dug into Southern rock and shredding guitar on Rock-N-Roll Fiasco, A Beautiful Thing, and Scrap Metal Blues; with Some Stories, in 2012, he traded in the amplified guitars for acoustic back-porch music and fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and lots of harmony vocals. Ain’t Learned Yet, from 2015, seemed like a synthesis, with understated lead guitar embellishing a batch of fully developed singer-songwriter-type songs.
But Family Hour is another departure. At just 27 minutes, it’s Abernathy’s most concise statement yet. In the past, he’s favored five- and six-minute songs to allow room for his guitar, but also for the characters—outcasts, outlaws, and other assorted miscreants—who inhabit his songs. Here, the songs feel more personal and less narrative-driven—they’re songs about middle age and, as the title suggests, family life. “You Kids” is a reverse version of Cheap Trick’s “Surrender,” an anthem to getting teenagers out of the house for peace and quiet; “Stage Dad” is a rip-roaring pop-punk track, all of two minutes and 13 seconds, about being the father of three musicians. (Abernathy’s daughters play in the Pinklets.) There’s some formal variety—“Don’t Say My Baby” tours through honky-tonkin’ cowpunk territory, and “Beach Music” explores pre-Beatles pop-rock.
Another difference: Both Some Stories and Ain’t Learned Yet featured all-star rosters of local talent like Greg Horne, Trisha Gene Brady, and Tim and Susan Lee, and Sean McCollough. The lineup on Family Hour is leaner—Abernathy on guitar and vocals, Gray Comer on drums, Po Hannah on guitar, and Mike Murphy on bass, with guest appearances by John Baker and two of the Pinklets.
It’s a change that suits the modest but affecting music here.
The Monkeys grew up and had an affair with Motörhead which spawned a love child, and John Prine is his godfather. Here’s eight fresh new rock-n-roll tunes that you can sing along with and boogie to. A big THANK YOU to everyone involved in the making of this album – Gray Comer, Po Hannah, Mike Murphy, John Baker, Chad Pelton, Jason Knight and Christine, Roxie, Lucy & Eliza Abernathy.
1. You Kids
3. Stage Dad
4. Don’t Say My Baby
5. Beach Music
6. Rock Star Dyin’ Blues
7. Bullet Holes For Speed
8. Let’s Pretend
If there’s a more appropriate title for singer-songwriter Kevin Abernathy’s new album, he’s hard-pressed to come up with it.
“Family Hour,” after all, turns on the intricacies of Abernathy’s relationship with his wife and three daughters, all of it filtered through the snark and wistfulness that he so deftly commands. There’s “You Kids,” about the eventual departure of his kids from the nest; “Stage Dad,” a sarcastic rejoinder to comments about his daughters’ rock band, The Pinklets; and the boogie-woogie shuffle of “Don’t Say My Baby,” a love song to the sort of woman strong enough to marry a guy like Abernathy: “She got one child on her hip, two more pulling on her legs, they’re screaming bloody murder, she’s on the phone and flipping eggs …”
“I’m in a lot of these songs, and a lot of these are how I really feel about some things, and some of them are directly drawn from things that have happened in my family,” Abernathy told The Daily Times recently. “We became tighter-knit unit last year. We did a lot of traveling, and the girls played a lot while I dealt with stage managers and sound guys. Now, they’re pretty much doing their own thing and running their own show, but we’re all still pretty tight. Roxy played on four or five songs on this record, and Lucy sang backup on one, and then her painting of the family band is the album’s cover.”
With such a stellar body of work to his credit, it’s difficult to say that “Family Hour” is his best, but it certainly sounds like Abernathy at his most comfortable: From the doo-wop flourishes of “Beach Music” to the bite of “Stage Dad” to the wryly observational “Appearances,” it’s a rock ‘n’ roll record that feels like a favorite jacket, well-worn but never out of style, and it adds to the sort of cachet that makes Abernathy East Tennessee’s answer to Peter Wolf.
“I just admire a songwriter who can write a short song; it’s hard for me to do, because I’m a detail person, and I like that people know what the song is about,” he said. “Writing shorter is harder to do in a story song; it’s hard to take 16 lines and basically tell a short story in under four minutes, but I tried to challenge myself and keep every song under 3 minutes. There are a couple longer than that, but if one clocked in at 3:08, I would say, ‘Nope! Let’s trim some more fat!’”
Abernathy — who will celebrate “Family Hour” with a release show on Friday at Barley’s Knoxville — is a Monroe County boy (and a cousin to Madisonville starlet Emilie “EmiSunshine” Hamilton) who was drawn to hard rock and metal when he first picked up a guitar. After graduating high school in 1982, he left for California, where he started dabbling in songwriting and played in a number of bands before moving to Nashville, where he landed a gig in the Shapeshifters. That band found a modest degree of success, and while in Music City, Abernathy studied the craft of artists like John Hiatt. When he moved back to East Tennessee, he released a trio of records under the Kevin Abernathy Band moniker before scaling back and dabbling in a more folk-oriented sound with “Some Stories” in 2012. “Family Hour” follows “Ain’t Learned Yet,” released in 2015, and follows a reliable formula — plenty of guitar, a backing band (Gray Comer, who also recorded “Family Hour” at The Arbor Studio, on drums; Barry “Po” Hannah” on guitar; and Mike Murphy on bass) that completes his vision and songwriting that’s some of the most respected in the local scene.
“I’ve been in and out of the studio for a year and a half, recording these songs, and I was trying to write more, but it didn’t happen,” he said. “This was going to be an EP; I had six songs, and then I put on an instrumental (“Bullet Holes,” built off a riff that’s a couple decades old) and wrote ‘Let’s Pretend.’”
One of his fears, however, is that with his daughter’s painting on the album’s cover, and given the title itself, some fans may think he’s recorded a children’s album. It’s not, and besides, it’s a better fit than the photo he had picked out, one of a group of four mountain boys from Townsend, culled from his mother-in-law’s photo albums.
“I had the antithesis of Lucy’s painting,” he said with a laugh. “It does look like a children’s record, but it’s cute and unexpected, and I’m going to use it.”
Steve Wildsmith is the Weekend editor for The Daily Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 981-1144, follow him on Twitter @TNRockWriter and “Like” Weekend on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dailytimesweekend.
Singer-songwriter Kevin Abernathy knows what it’s like to be a young rocker full of flashy guitar riffs and songs about the glories of rock ‘n’ roll. Look at photos of the Madisonville native from his days in San Francisco and you’ll see a lot of hair and flashy late ‘80s metal outfits.
There’s a little of that still left. The guitar chops never left and he still has hair. The hair is just a lot shorter and less puffy. Yet, sitting across from him at SoKno Taco, he seems a long, long way from those flashy clothes and rocker poses. Since returning to East Tennessee at the beginning of the 2000s, Abernathy has been one of Knoxville’s most consistent singer-songwriters, albeit one whose guitar work sometimes overshadows the depth of his lyrics. His music is as down-to-earth and real as his demeanor.
Abernathy’s new album, “Family Hour,” couldn’t have been more aptly titled. All of his albums have included songs and references to family, but the new disc is nearly all about Abernathy’s life with his wife, Christine, and the couple’s three daughters, Roxie, Lucy and Eliza.
The girls are the subject of the disc’s opening rocker, “You Kids.” Abernathy says the song is sort of a continuation of his earlier song “Drama House,” which depicted life as the only male in the household.
“I wrote ‘Drama House’ when the kids were little — little girls screaming around the house,” he says. “It’s kind of the other end of that. Now they’re growing up and we’re thinking about them moving out and going to college.”
The song begins with: “One of these days this house will turn quiet, they’ll pack up the noise, step off the porch, go start their own riot, leave us with the cat and the dogs, repainting the kitchen, waiting for a call … .”
“It’s just the natural progression of being a parent,” says Abernathy. “You know?”
Abernathy’s daughters show up again in the song “Stage Dad,” which humorously reflects his life with daughters who now have their own music act, The Pinklets.
The song “Don’t Say My Baby” is about being married to a strong woman, the sort who would (and did) dig a swimming pool in the family’s yard, as is documented in the song.
“Well, it’s really about the male chauvinist who lumps all women into the same category,” Abernathy says. “The guy who says, ‘Do you need to ask the boss?’ That really irks me. In a sense, I do, but I don’t call her the boss.”
Abernathy says the album really developed when he wrote and recorded the song “Beach Music,” a nostalgic song lamenting the lack of music on the beach now that everyone is plugged in to their own music. The song was released as a single in 2016, but the rest of the album was a long time coming.
“2016 was kind of a weird year,” Abernathy says. “We did a lot of family time and a lot of woodshedding. It wasn’t extremely fruitful, but I did get seven songs and one instrumental.”
Feeling that the songs he had all had a theme, he didn’t want to wait to add any more. The disc clocks in just under 30 minutes, making it as long as The Beatles’ early albums, but almost an EP by modern standards.
One song, “Rock Star Dying Blues,” simply seems to reflect the year it was written about.
“There’s a lot of rock stars who died in 2016, but there was a lot of other stuff going on, too,” Abernathy says. “People seemed to focus on the rock stars more than kids strapping bombs to themselves. It’s kind of ambiguous in that kind of way, but that was what I was trying to get across. There’s so much more important stuff going on in the world. That’s just the way it’s going to be from now on. Baby boomer rock stars who had a hard life, partying for 50 years, they’re gonna die. Prince was a shocker. But you might as well get used to it. Everybody’s getting old.”
While Abernathy is recognized as one of Knoxville’s premier songwriters, he says it still doesn’t come easy.
“What’s never changed is I don’t know how I do it. It seems like you’re down in the trenches with a song or an idea and you come out of it and you have a song and you say, ‘Wow. How did I do that? That’s great, but I don’t feel like I will ever be able to do it again.’ It’s the same every time. It doesn’t matter if it’s about family or a car or some kind of social issue, it’s all the same. They either come quick and you know you’ve got something or you know it’s not going anywhere. It’s like starting over every time. … Maybe I’m doing something wrong!”
Had such a grand time on the Ye Old Dogs & Near Beer Mini-Tour. Man, it felt so good to be out there playing music again, especially with my pals Ty and Scotty. Thank you to everyone who came out to see us!
I look forward to wrapping up post production on the new album this month so stay tuned for more details on that.
And last but not least, we’re excited to announce that we’ll be playing the WDVX Camperfest Reunion in Kodak on Saturday, May 6th. Please visit the Shows page for more details.
At the end of the month I’ll be teaming up with old pals Ty Hager and Scotty Melton for the “YE OLD DOGS & NEAR BEERin-the-roundMINI-TOUR.” On Thursday the 30th we’ll be on the WDVX Blue Plate Special at noon, then later that night we’ll be playing the Down Home in Johnson City. Friday night we’ll be back in Knoxville for the inaugural Happy Yap House Concert, then we’ll be wrapping up the weekend in Nashville Saturday night at Bobby’s Idle Hour.
I’ll be playing a song at WayneStock next month as part of “The Departed” celebration, but I’m not gonna tell what song it is – you’re gonna have to come out and see for yourselves! We lost too many beautiful artists in 2016. Really looking forward to seeing you all at the best Knoxville gathering there is.