Interview: Rod Abernethy on his multiple careers and Bob Dylan Song award

How entering an LA TV talent show inadvertently delayed a career as an acoustic guitar playing singer-songwriter

If I asked who has heard of Rod Abernethy then it wouldn’t be too surprising if most UK readers said no, but a lot more people may have heard his music without realising it and in another twist, if they had heard it they may not have actually listened to it. Rod Abernathy through the unintended consequences of a ‘70s Los Angeles TV talent show became a prolific composer for TV, films and video games before deciding to go back to his first love of being an acoustic guitarist and singer-songwriter. This North Carolina native has been building his restarted career over the last 7 years or so despite, or maybe because, he is in his ‘60s.  Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Rod Abernethy to discuss why he felt the need to return to being a singer-songwriter, what it was like winning American Songwriter’s Bob Dylan Song Contest in 2019, the topicality of his new album ‘Normal Isn’t Normal Anymore’ despite the songs being written pre-COVID and his admiration for the Nashville based musicians and producer Neilson Hubbard who worked on his largely solo album. If all that isn’t enough, Rod Abernethy also builds steampunk robots from found items.

How are you? I hope you and your family and friends are all OK and coping with the challenges of COVID?

Yes, we’ve had our first and second shots. It is funny, someone explained it like being when you go to the dentist and the dentist puts a lead blanket on you for an x-ray, and they said they felt as if a weight had been lifted off their body. I didn’t feel quite that way but I did tear up a bit when I got that first shot because of the stress of the whole year, it was pretty emotional getting that shot. Let’s hope it lasts for a while.

The evidence seems to be that the vaccine is the way out of the pandemic and while most governments, particularly the UK and US ones, have made major mistakes in their response to COVID, they are moving forward successfully with vaccination. In time, let’s hope it will become just become a normal disease.

Yeah, what a fucked-up time. I am just waiting to get over to the UK because I just love going there.

There is a massive pent-up demand for live music in the UK, as there must be in the US. Once things open up things will get crazy I think. You have recorded an awful lot of soundtracks and you also have a singer-songwriter career. How did that come about, and how do you reconcile both activities?

I finally feel like myself, after years. I mean, I love composing and I love video games and doing film soundtracks but about 7 ago I decided to get back on stage again, and that was kind of scary. I definitely wanted to do it, I wanted to get back to what I was doing like 25 years ago. I decided to do it, my wife went “You are going to do what?”, haha, and I said, “Yeah, I have to do it.”. I started little by little, playing around town with a gig here and a gig there, I’d do some covers and then I started writing again and getting my chops back on my guitar. I then went to Folk Alliance International and I said, yes, this is my place and it is where I am going to start playing. I started going to every folk conference I could around the country, I started showcasing and then I had good luck with the first album and then the Bob Dylan award really boosted my profile. People then started going to me, you do play guitar, don’t you, you do sing, and I go yeah, this is who I am and what I do, I have always been this person I just haven’t been ready to come back and start doing it. I am glad I did and I am glad I did it when I did before the pandemic because I had 3 or 4 years of good playing, being on the road, but like all the musicians that I know, the pandemic was just like wham, killed it. All you can do is just accept it, OK.

Being on the road as a musician in your teens and twenties is great, but what is it like when you are in your sixties and not used to it?

Actually, my wife, Suzanne, goes with me. I don’t mind driving, I really don’t, and it has really been awesome to be able to play for people. You do have to go out and find your audience, but Folk Alliance has helped me do that and I was just starting to get booked when the pandemic hit, just starting to get into some nice venues but I think that will come back. You can’t just sit at home with your guitar and go I’d love to play, I think I will wait for that phone call, that club to call me and let me play. No, you have to get out there, you have to email, you have to network like you always did. People don’t really buy CDs, we know that.

I do, and I was speaking to someone the other day and they were saying the even CD sales in the UK were showing an increase. I’m not sure how true that is, it may just have been a rumour or a blip in the sales trends.

Really, inching back up, I glad to hear that. As you know most musicians really make money from their live performances, but at least we are playing. I love americana, I love roots, the new album ‘Normal Isn’t Normal Anymore’, I chose Neilson Hubbard as the producer because he is an americana roots kind of guy. He had a good vision for what I wanted to do and I sort of let him take the reigns.

How did you hook up with him?

Some friends of mine, Ordinary Elephant, a duo here in the states who are a wonderful folk/americana/roots husband and wife team and they did a record with Neilson Hubbard and I loved the way it sounded. I then heard what he did with Mary Gauthier and loved that and she had a Grammy-nominated album with him. I then listened to his own songs and he is a great songwriter, his vocals sounded good and I wanted somebody to just help me just sit down and play as the person I want to be. I don’t want to have to worry about the console or the red light, I just want to play and sing and he said let’s do that. He said I will be in charge of the red light, you just play and sing, and the one thing he didn’t let me do was to go back and fix stuff, haha, because I am notorious for detail and going back and let’s fix that word, let’s punch in that part, and before you know it I had just lost the whole feel. I would go into the control room and go, Neilson, I’d like to do that over, and he was no man, that was it. I was like no, no and he was that was it, that was it. When I listened two or three weeks later, he was right. He really did a great job with that.

These days you can be perfect if you want to be, technology lets you do that and it sounds like shit normally.

It really does. I grew up with tape, I grew up with analogue, and it was really hard to fix things back then. I mean, you could, you could punch stuff in but you couldn’t add it like you can now. Pitch correction on anything was not available, you had to play it and the group had to play it right. I guess that was a good thing for me because I learned a lot.

Did you go into the studio knowing how you wanted the songs arranged or did you work things up in the studio?

It was a bit of both, but Neilson and I wanted it to be fairly simple, me and my guitar and then add things to it. We didn’t really want to put a band sound on it and being in Nashville, everyone has heard that Nashville has great musicians, and there are one or two first track kind of studio session musicians and that is what happened. These guys came in, they listened to the track once and let’s go. They play it through, maybe play it twice, and they got it, haha. I’m a pretty good musician, I think, but I am not that good, where I can walk into someone else’s session and just listen to it and then say let’s go, and you’re going whoa that works. That’s the way it happened, and a lot of the arrangements just kind of happened. It wasn’t weeks and weeks of going oh man, let’s go back and change this or that, we pretty much did the track and someone would add a part and we were done. I think it feels that way, it feels more live to me.

Organic, it breaths.

Yeah, and then the acoustic guitar stuff is just me playing the guitar. Someone asked me how many overdubs I did on the twelve-string and I said it is only one guitar, it is just me playing so that was fairly simple, I just had to play it right.

The album and songs sound very contemporary but how old are the songs and when were they recorded?

Maybe a year old. That’s the thing, I wrote the album a year and a half ago, even two years ago, before the pandemic, and we recorded it in December 2019 and had it mixed in January 2020 and I was going to release it in February 2020 and then the pandemic hit.  All those songs kind of sound like I wrote them during the pandemic, but I already had them and I was a little worried about naming it ‘Normal Isn’t Normal Anymore’ because I thought that is too obvious, maybe I should change the name, and Neilson said no man, keep it the way it is, just do it. It worked out.

In terms of your own music, do you have any baggage from your soundtrack and video game days? The ideas, techniques etc you need for that market, did you leave all that behind or what skills were you able to reuse?

I think for my instrumental guitar work, when I do that stuff I am sort of thinking like visually, like a soundtrack. There is a song called ‘Over The Fence’ and it is a guitar instrumental and it is about my dog jumping over the fence, and I am treating that more like a soundtrack. When I am doing a song like ‘My Father Is A Quiet Man’ that has nothing to do with my soundtrack work that was just me being a singer, telling you what my experience was. Some people say well, how do you deal with being a composer may be doing this weird techno track here and then you are playing a Leo Kottke style twelve-string over there. I just say I don’t know man, I just love it all. I started this conversation by saying this singer-songwriter is me, he has always been here but he has been hiding under all this composer, film score stuff, which I really love doing, but I was always going back to playing again with me singing. That is where I started, in college, I was a folksinger.

Speaking of college, wasn’t it the University Of North Carolina?

Yes, UNC Chapel Hill, I studied music and that served me well, to have studied that even though my parents knew I wasn’t going to make any money getting a music degree it was well, that is the only thing I want to do. My father wanted me to be a dentist, he was a dentist and he thought I was going to be going to dental school and take over his practice. I remember the weekend when I went I don’t want to be a dentist, I want to be a musician, and they were like well how are you going to make money doing that, and you know how you are in your late teens, you are not thinking about stuff you just want to play. Luckily I joined a band that were kind of making money, a band called Arrogance, and Don Dixon was the bass player and we played a lot, we survived. It wasn’t that bad.

Looking at your career, you seem to have worked a lot around North Carolina, which has a lot of history. Is that a fair observation?

Yeah, yes it does. There is a lot of music, different kinds of music, coming out of North Carolina. That is why I chose to stay here, I do have a story that I tell and it is about a show called ‘Star Search’ which was kind of like ‘American Idol’, and I was a rock type guy trying to get my own record deal and I was going out to LA a lot with demos and trying to be my own rock’n’roll new wave guy. I worked with a producer out there and someone said why don’t you go on ‘Star Search’ and I said well I don’t really like that style of presentation, it is not my thing. However, I was kind of at the end of my rope with rock’n’roll and I auditioned and I got on ‘Star Search’ which was like this international TV talent show. I went on, and of course, I lost the first time, and I went back to the producer, a big-time Hollywood producer, I was working with and he said Rod I love you, but you just lost in front of millions of people so there isn’t a record company in the world who is going to sign you now. I was like, oh man, I didn’t think about that, so that is when I started thinking about going back to North Carolina and being a composer. I got a job managing a 24 track recording studio which gave me the chance to record my own stuff, for free basically, and I became a composer. There was a lot of commercial stuff, independent films and then I got into video games, and I’ve done about 80 video game scores in the last 15 or 20 years. All this from North Carolina, I don’t know how exactly I did it staying in North Carolina, but somehow I did.

When you look at yourself now, are you a singer-songwriter and a guitarist, how do you see yourself?

I am a guitar player and a singer. It took me a while, maybe a couple of years, but playing in front of so many people, connecting with people, it doesn’t matter if there are 5 people or 500 people, I am connecting with people. I am at an age now where I have a lot to say, I have a lot of life experiences to talk about. When I was 20, all my songs were about girls. My songs now are about life and connecting with people, sometimes I wonder whether I am being too personal about what I am talking about. Again, Neilson said no man, you are just talking about living, about life, talking about your dad, your brother your Mom, your son. I think COVID and the pandemic also helped me to compress and expand who I am, I finally got there, like I kind of graduated into what I wanted to be, if that makes sense.

That is a pretty good achievement to get to your ‘60s and say I am the person who I always wanted to be.

I am very fortunate that I can do that, I am just fortunate that I still have two hands, and these fingers work.

How important was your wife in supporting you in your journey?

She has been great. She had a lot of faith that I could do it, and I am kind of tenacious like that if I put my mind to something. I have been told I will run through a brick wall if I have to, haha. That is good and bad, haha. You get your blinders on and then all of a sudden you go, oh it’s our anniversary today and I’ve forgotten, or oh it’s your birthday and I’ve forgotten or it’s the rent, haha.

You mentioned the time with COVID, and a lot of musicians I have talked to have said they were initially strangely pleased with COVID because it forced them off the road, they had time to enjoy their home and they had time to re-evaluate things. Then things began to get difficult and they became more twitchy. What did lockdown allow you to do, how did you use the year?

How did I use the Year? Well, I became a better father, I became a better husband and a better cook. I actually became a better guitar player.

How did you become a better guitar player?

Because I am just practicing more, sitting here just toying around listening to what I am doing. You are not on the road, I didn’t have any work from composing because I have pretty much said, OK, I am focusing solely on stage and my new album and so I wasn’t out there trying to get new work as a composer, so that work wasn’t happening. In that business you have to stay on it, you have to network and you have to keep going. I learned how to edit video, which I have always wanted to do, and I edited two videos for the album, that I didn’t think I could do. Photography, and also if you visit the website I make art, I make steampunk robots and I love that, and I have parts that I could fill up three semi-trucks with. I don’t know, the way composers work is in isolation anyway, we are in a room, usually a small room with a couple of TV monitors, and we work 8 to 10 hours a day just doing that. I think for composers and musicians to write, COVID wasn’t really that different. Being on the road, yeah, totally different.

When you write your own songs how do you know when they are finished? If you are writing a soundtrack it is a very defined requirement as it needs to support the action but a song is a lot more nebulous.

I’ve sure you have asked other songwriters that question. For composers, it is a deadline and milestone schedule and you are done because you have got to get on with the next one, and you are really done when your client says that’s good, let’s move on and you always have a client, you know. Client isn’t a really great word for it but they are, they hired you and you have a schedule that you have to move on. With songwriting, how do you know when it is done? Many times I know when it is done because I have finished so many thousands of deadlines in my life with music, I kind of know that’s it, I’m done. A couple of songs when I got into the studio with Neilson, I didn’t know if they were done or not, and sometimes you don’t know whether it is done or not until you play it for somebody else, or you play it for an audience a couple of times. Does that make sense?

That makes sense. You class yourself as a guitarist, who do you really admire?

Oh, you can probably look at the colour of my hair and make a pretty good guess.

Keep it tight, I know guitarists listen to a lot of other guitarists, it is part of the job, but which 3 guitarists made the biggest impression on you as a guitarist?

Mm, you can’t do three it would be more like 30. I have played so many styles of guitar, and I always seem to come back to solo acoustic guitar, so I guess that would be Leo Kottke, John Renbourn, Michael Hedges, John Fahey but underneath that, I have to add Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and if you go forward, like the present, it would be people like John Mayer and a mishmash of stuff, Andres Segovia, it kind of just doesn’t end.

From what you have said you haven’t stopped listening to music.

That is right, not at all. My listening list is pretty wide. I will be listening to Shostakovich and then I will go and listen to Tom Waits in the same 30 minutes, or I am listening to the Beatles or Ateka or Crystal Method. It gets kind of wacky with Nine Inch Nails and Trent Reznor and then Miles Davis. I had a thing the other day, I couldn’t stop listening to The Meters, I just love The Meters. I don’t really get deep into jazz, even though I love it, I think I would just like to listen to something like Sam Cooke. The other day we were listening to the Lumineers all day long, just because they have a great sound.

When you say we, it was?

My wife and I, Suzanne. Sorry to be so out there with my influences.

No, don’t worry, they are your influences.

I can turn this around and say for your morning what would you be listening to? I don’t want to put you on the spot so don’t answer if you don’t want to, haha.

It depends on the sort of day and music matches your mood to an extent so it will depend on whether I need calming down or motivating to do something. It is probably our age and the variety of music that was available in our formative years so mine is jazz through folk, country, blues and whatever, it is just good music. As I have got older I have probably listened to more acoustic music than I ever did when I was young, but that is probably just because I know more about music now.

Also, having a son who is just 23 and being able to listen to what he is listening to is great because I would never have discovered The Tallest Man on Earth or Mipso and even John Mayer. Those are three different kinds of things, The Avett Brothers are here in North Carolina, all great musicians and really great music but when someone asks me what do you listen to I just say anything that comes through, I’m listening to it.

Let’s talk about your Bob Dylan award. How did that come about and what did it mean to you?

I have been playing ‘Oxford Town’ since I was in college and playing it kind of differently. When I started playing again about 6 or 7 years ago I brought it out of the closet and started adding licks to it. I never play it the same way twice and I played it for a Folk Alliance Conference and they did a videotape so I had a nice video of it and I saw online that American Songwriter was doing the Bob Dylan Song Contest. We musicians enter into stuff all the time, you enter something and then forget about it. I had a post-it note on the door, Bob Dylan Song Contest, to remind me to enter that video, and then we went on vacation for 3 weeks, we came back and I saw the note on the back of the door and OK, I’ve got to enter that but then forgot about it. I went to bed that night, got into bed and it was the night of the 12 o’clock midnight deadline and Suzanne looked at me in bed and said what the hell is that note on the door that says Dylan, and I went oops. So I got up out of bed, put the video together and sent it in and two weeks later I got an email, you have won. So I owe this to Suzanne, not me. That is just one of those things, I couldn’t believe I had won it but I had been working on that song for so long I’m glad that they liked it.

It must have helped establish you as a solo artist.

It has helped a lot and it has also been a great time for that song because it is just as powerful as it was in the late ‘60s. I kind of think it is even more powerful in a way and it is always fun to play.

It will be associated with you now to an extent.

That is nice. I started playing it thinking I’m rocking this song too hard, because the song message is what it is about, and then I just started playing it and rocking it as hard as I could because the message needs to be heard.

The writer has had a pretty good year as well.

It is amazing. A lot of people say things about Dylan that they can’t understand him at his concerts or he is not doing this, and I am like well it’s Bob Dylan, he can do whatever he wants. He was the one at Newport Folk Festival who brought out an electric guitar and changed basically pop music from that point on. It is Bob Dylan.

Have you given any thought to your next album? Are we going to see another facet of Rod Abernathy?

It won’t be a 180 change, no, it will be more like this one but I have got things in mind already. One thing about this last album, I didn’t really go into it with a design in mind but I just kept the focus on what I wanted to say and I think that is the best way. I do like guitar instrumentals and I am going to keep putting guitar instrumentals on my albums, that is a big part of it. I am not sure yet about an album title but I have got a few songs already.

When you write your instrumentals, which is a bit like your soundtrack work, where do you get your titles from? Do you have a mental image or does the composition give you an image?

Sometimes I will start with a phrase. Right now I heard a phrase, and you probably heard it a million times, “ten a penny”. Tell me what think that means.

I have always thought it is something that is very cheap and plentiful.

I heard it on a Brit crime show and I went, that is a song title. So maybe if there is a cheap lick I can develop, a cheap little lick, those are ten a penny and do something with that, that is how I approach an instrumental. I have another song, I won’t go into song titles, and usually, I will come up with a phrase or hear a phrase and go that needs to be heard, or I need to run that into the ground over and over, haha, like we do. ‘It Is Always Something’ on the album, I came up with that because I said that to somebody a couple of years ago, that’s broken and this is broken, I tried this and it is always something. Well, there is the song, it is always something I did or didn’t do.

There is a big debate around streaming and music royalties. What is your view on streaming from an artist’s perspective?

What are we going to do about that? We can’t really do much about it.

I was speaking to an Australian recently, and he said he thought that the recent Facebook spat with the Australian government over the lack of payment made by Facebook for its news content could ultimately provide a solution for streaming royalties for artists.

The Music Monetarisation Act Congress that was been worked on a few years ago was meant to help with royalties and I don’t really know the mechanics of that, but I really think that people have grown into this mindset that music is free and that we don’t need to pay for it because we can get it wherever we want it. What are we going to do about it? There are people who don’t mind paying for their music but I kind of throw up my hands at it, I  don’t have an answer to it. People think I make royalties from the video games I have done but that is all work for hire, there are no royalties in video game music. When I hear people say I just go to Spotify and listen to whatever I want, and are Spotify going to pay musicians, no. There is a lot of great music out there, that is another thing. We could talk about this for weeks and still not get an answer.

You obviously can’t tour the new album so how are you going to get it in front of people?

I am hoping to get some kind of virtual tour together around the country where I can go to prominent venues and clubs and offer them a show. You know when we say there is a paywall or there isn’t a paywall, I think that is one way musicians can try and make more money than just playing and putting up their tip jar. It gets old for a lot of people because if you play on your Facebook page and you put a tip jar up and you play every week, people aren’t going to watch you much after a while. There needs to be a way to stream as if you were going to a venue, you can only see it then and, hopefully, the venue won’t replay that performance over and over. You then take that and let another venue play that performance and you have to be at a certain level of popularity to warrant that as well. To me, one of the biggest things COVID has done has been to close down a lot of clubs at the lower level, clubs that were the breeding ground of new music. People can’t now go to smaller clubs, every town used to have 2 or 3 clubs just for live music, but those little clubs was how groups were surviving around the country and grew into the next level. It is great to be able to go to a drive-in theatre and see someone like Jason Isbell but who is on the level of Jason Isbell right now, how do you get from my level to that level. You play lots of clubs around the country and you go out and you work your butt off and play, but that network is not there anymore. That is a big void and I am not sure how we are going to get that back any time soon. I don’t think the government will give much support to the arts for that, I don’t know. Classical musicians and orchestras, they are having a very hard time as well.

If you are a classical musician, what do you do, you play live most of the time, a few recordings here and there maybe, but essentially it is live performances. Is there anything you want to say to our UK readers?

I just want to say I want to come over and play and sometime that will happen. A big part of my heart is in the UK, I travelled one summer in college and backpacked through England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales and I have a deep affection for the UK. I recorded an album in Bath with one of my rock bands, we were there for 6 weeks and we got to know that area really well. Like in the States, I hope this cloud lifts enough where people can really get back to some kind of normality.

Rod Abernethy’s ‘Normal Isn’t Normal’ is out now as an independent release

About Martin Johnson 407 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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Wow, thanks for this. Do I ever remember Rod Abernethy! I too was a student at UNC Chapel Hill in the 70s, and I probably caught Arrogance live in concerts more than any band in those days, starting from their early format with no drummer (before RA joined), through years as they grew from a quirky mostly acoustic quartet to a full-scale loud electric ‘rock’ quintet (with RA). Though he was the outstanding lead guitarist, the focus was always on the band’s two singer/songwriters, Robert Kirkland & Don Dixon. I still have dusty old vinyl copies of all their albums, plus many Dixon productions, incl RA’s first solo album.