Lord of the Rings

Quick Q and A with Rod Abernethy

There are guitar players and then there are guitar PLAYERS.  Trust me, Rod Abernethy is the latter. The way his fingers pick and paw around a fretboard makes for a breathtaking experience to behold. Having witnessed Rod in concert several times, I looked forward to the release of his new album, Normal Isn’t Normal Anymore with great anticipation.  Imagine Leo Kottke with a North Carolinian slant—there is much wonder to experience in this album. Rod’s very precise songwriting engages the listener with its gentle and genuine wisdom and his guitar playing blazes through with reckless abandonment and great joy.

To learn more about Rod Abernethy, visit his website.

Here’s a video that shows off Rod’s extraordinary talent on guitar.  Check out the illustrations by Lisa Bastoni who was interviewed in this blog last year.

You cite your influences as Leo Kottke, Michael Hedges and Tommy Emmanuel.  I definitely hear their influence, especially Kottke.  Are you one of those guitarists who listened to their records endlessly and practiced their songs until your fingers couldn’t take it anymore? 

Yes, I spent a lot of my teenage years in my room playing guitar. I wore out a load of phonograph needles when I was growing up listening to sections of songs over and over and over – there was no YouTube to learn things on:)

Did you learn how to play by reading music or are you an ear learner and figured out a lot of the chords yourself?

I’m basically an ear learner but being a music major in college, I also read a lot of music as a piano major and studying classical music. All my folk and rock guitar chops were learned by picking guitar parts and arrangements out by ear – pun intended.

You paid your dues as a member of Arrogance, a well-respected rock band out of your home state of North Carolina. I’m sure you have stories to tell about local bar gigs and about touring around the country.  Now that you’re a solo performer, what would you say are the highlights and lowlights of both ways of playing out in clubs?

Yes, I was on the road for years in the 70s/80s. Back when I could live on three hours sleep, going to bed at 4am after gigs. But hey, who thought I’d still be living the same gig schedule at hotels for Folk Alliance Conferences around the country!  Seriously, I love playing solo folk gigs and I’m really missing not playing live. That’s putting it mildly. 

An interesting fact about your musical life is that you worked as a composer of video game music.  How did you find yourself in such a niche market? 

I left the road and my rock ’n roll life in the mid-80s to be a full-time composer.  I was offered to manage a prominent 24-track studio in North Carolina and that allowed me to have a home base to record film and TV scores and commercials.  Having that studio allowed me to remain in music and still make a good living. In the late ‘90s, a regional game company ask me to score a game and I loved it. So, I sought out other game developers in the country and hit the market at the high time, I’ve scored over 75 games since then.

Believe it or not, our careers (yours in music and mine in publishing) overlapped during the period when you wrote the music for The Hobbit video game and won best score of 2003. I was working for Houghton-Mifflin who held the copyright for Tolkein and we were bought by Vivendi during that time.  That’s just a personal aside, what I really want to know is how you immersed yourself into the Hobbit world and how you created music for a video game related to it!

I wrote The Hobbit scores with Dave Adams and we had to send in composer demos to get that gig. The demos were based on music guide examples that the game developer had sent us that included Howard Shore’s The Lord Of The Rings scores, traditional Celtic music and surprisingly a lot of acoustic guitar examples from Michael Hedges.  We worked on those demo tracks for two weeks straight and I played a lot acoustic 12 and 6 string on them.  Years later the audio director on the project said it was my guitar playing that got us the gig:)  You can hear the scores on Bandcamp at https://thehobbit.bandcamp.com/

Your latest album is called Normal Isn’t Normal Anymore and that track was written before the world-as-we-knew-it (pre-COVID) occurred.  Since you were obviously thinking those thoughts back then, what prompted you to sit down and write a song about the world not being “normal” anymore and have you reflected upon your prophetic words?

It’s a little scary, to be honest, how the song was telling the future.  While on the road the past few years I got the idea for the song after talking to so many folks who had the same fear as I did…that many things they held dear in their lives were changing way too fast from outside sources. The verses in the song are based on events I read or heard on the news. I felt the need to sing about it and it felt a little risky at first but when I started performing the song it got a great response.  Neilson Hubbard’s production really brought out a rawness of the song on the album track.

For me, a standout song on the new album is “My Father Was a Quiet Man.”  Your recollection of the day your father bought you your first guitar is so touching. The fact that he intuited your love for music at an early age is a gift like no other and the way the song fast forwards to the death of your brother and then onto your relationship with your son.   Wow!  This song is such a gift to your son!  I’ve heard many songs about fathers and sons but this one is right up there.  Was the song percolating inside you for some time? Did the song have an evolution like the story it tells?

The song started the day after I had a dream that my dad called me to see how I was doing.  He had died years earlier, but he sounded like a young version of himself and was talking a mile a minute. The funny thing was that he never said a whole lot when he was alive.  It took a while to get the song in shape, but the last verse for my son came out in a burst of emotion after I had wrestled with how to bring the song to an end. To me, songs are gifts from deep within.  We just have to be able to open that flood gate and let them come out.  I thank my dad for that dream…that call.

The song “Tobacco Was King” that you co-wrote with Susan Cattaneo is a cautionary tale sprinkled with post WWII social commentary.  As a New Englander who was pretty much ignorant about the capitalism of the cigarette industry and only aware of “tobacco as king” based on the old “Game of States” board game, tell me about your awareness of the tobacco industry and how it changed during your lifetime?  What prompted you to write this song about it?

Both my parents smoked when I was growing up. They smoked in the house, the car, the patio and just about everywhere I can recall. I remember most adults smoking when I was a kid.

Tobacco used to be North Carolina’s main cash crop. Last year I was walking in downtown Winston Salem, NC where cigarettes were made and looking at the enormous factory smokestacks at the now closed RJ Reynolds factory. I took a photo and posted it on Instagram with the title “When Tobacco Was King”.  My buddy Susan Cattaneo texted me a few minutes after I made the post and said “let’s write a song and call it “When Tobacco Was King”.  So I met Susan in Boston not long after and we wrote it.

The song “Over the Fence” is apparently a musical ode to the family dog who jumped the fence and went into town one day.  I think it’s absolutely mesmerizing to think of an instrumental like this telling a story and then I began to think about your past work in composing music to “illustrate” the action on a computer screen for a video game.  Light dawns on Marblehead as they say up here in these parts.  Tell us about this instrumental and how you imagined your dog’s journey and how that translated into music!

Sometimes my guitar instrumentals take on the life of a music score, I guess because I’ve been a soundtrack composer for so many years. We adopted a coonhound five years ago. She’s a sweet dog but if left alone she will jump the backyard fence and roam downtown for hours.  But we’ve been lucky that someone always finds her and calls our number that is on her collar. This is a soundtrack I wrote to go along with one of her jumping the fence, roaming downtown, getting caught and having her “walk of shame” back home. 

Bob Dylan.  I’ve got to ask about your extraordinary version of “Oxford Town.”  American Songwriter chose it as the winner of the Bob Dylan Contest last year. What was it about that song that drew you to it?

I’ve been playing this tune since college in the ‘70s.  It’s always been one of my favorite Dylan songs, obviously:) I stopped playing it for years while I was composing, came back to it about eight years ago and started adding guitar lines and sections to it with no real intention of it being more than just one of the best tunes about racial injustice that I’ve ever heard. The more I played it, the more I embellished it.  And I still don’t know where I going musically when I play it, I just start out running and let it happen. 

Tell us a bit about your experience working with Grammy-Award winning producer, Neilson Hubbard, on this album and about the stellar group of musicians that were assembled.  How did the creation of this record differ from other recording experiences you’ve had in the past?

In a nutshell, Neilson gets it.  I discovered him by listening to Mary Gauthier’s and Ordinary Elephant’s recent albums.  He’s also an incredible songwriter and performer.  I didn’t know if he’d actually take me on and do the album and was so excited when he said he’d do it.  Before going into the studio, we had many long conversations about the songs and the direction for the album.  He always came back with “let’s hit record and let it happen.” In the sessions, I would want to fix tracks and re-record things and he’d always say “Rod, that was a great take – don’t get caught up in the little details that only you can hear.”  And he was always right. It was the first time that I wasn’t working full-time in front of a recording console and could just play my guitar, sing the song and let the songs blossom with Neilson in charge.  He also had his engineer Dylan Alldredge and an A-team of Nashville studio musicians.  

I’ve got to ask you about another creative outlet in your life: building steam-punk robots made of found objects!  That’s not a hobby that many people can claim and I’m totally in awe of your creations.  How did your fascination with robots begin?  Tell us about your creative process and how you go about inventing them.

I love science fiction and became a robot fanatic ever since I saw Robby the Robot in the movie Forbidden Planet. That was in the early ‘60s and I’ve been crazy about robots ever since.  I collected Japanese tin robots from the ‘50s/’60s…and have since sold my collection. About ten years ago I saw a robot that someone had made from found object parts, very steampunk looking. About a week later I went to the local flea market, collected parts and started building them on my own.  It’s a very cathartic process, it’s like building a puzzle in reverse.  Most robots take a couple of weeks to finally figure out and build.

Featured photo of Rod is by Jonathan Byrd. He is a man of many talents too!