Singer-songwriter and guitarist Rod Abernethy has been a Triangle fixture for decades — yet his new record couldn’t be more timely.
by: David Menconi
Rod Abernethy’s February album Normal Isn’t Normal Anymore seems like it was pulled straight out of the 2020 news cycle. Songs like Another Year (which opens, Jane walks through the city / all alone) and the title track (There was a time when anyone was welcome at the door / but normal isn’t
normal anymore) resonate perfectly with life on Planet Pandemic.
Funny thing about that, though: Abernethy wrote and recorded all 12 of these songs long before COVID-19 brought life to a screeching halt last spring, which makes the album seem prescient or creepy — or both.
“I wondered, should I even release this now? And what about that title, that song? It just seemed way too obvious, like people would think I did it during COVID,” the Raleigh singer-songwriter says. “But it really does predate that whole thing. The song Normal Isn’t Normal Anymore came from touring, talking to lots of people about how things just didn’t feel like they used to, so what is normal anymore? I’m glad I waited to release it now, it seems to mean more.”
Now 67, Abernethy has been a major presence in Triangle music for going on half a century. A native of Rutherfordton, west of Charlotte, he landed in the Triangle in 1971 to go to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, first appearing on local stages as a folksy singer-songwriter who played a mean guitar. In the mid-1970s he signed on as lead guitarist for Arrogance, a rock band that was pretty much at the top of the local heap.
“He’s a great guitar player and an interesting songwriter,” says his former Arrogance bandmate Don Dixon. “In some ways he made us more ‘coliseum rock’ than we really were when he joined Arrogance. But when I first met him, he was doing more like what he’s back to doing now: folk songs with Leo Kottke-esque guitar and these amazing instrumentals. He’d do these very funny comedy-act things that owed a lot to Steve Martin, wearing funny hats and doing goofy stuff right before dazzling people with his guitar playing.”
After leaving Arrogance in the early 1980s, Abernethy played in a series of bands including Glass Moon (appearing in their video for the 1982 Hot 100 Billboard hit single On a Carousel), Rod Dash, and The Slackmates. A consummate guitarist as well as a quick study, he also became an in-demand player and composer for commercial jingles and soundtracks for film, television and computer games, including winning a 2009 BAFTA Game Developers Choice Award for the audio in Dead Space.
Abernethy still does enough background soundtrack music to keep his hand in, and he teaches music composition at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. He also dabbles in outsider art, building “steampunk robot” sculptures from household items
and scavenged parts.
But Abernethy’s main order of business in recent years has been resuming his own recording and performing career. His 2018 solo album, The Man I’m Supposed To Be, showcased him as a guitarist who has only gotten better
“When I started playing again the past three or four years, I realized people want to connect,” says Abernethy. “That’s been a beautiful thing for me. I write and sing and play these songs about life experiences and then people come up afterward to say, I went through that, too. Thank you. People need that and I do, too.”
His solo act got a further boost when he won American Songwriter magazine’s 2019 Bob Dylan Song Contest, with a letter-perfect cover of the great bard’s early-1960s song Oxford Town, and in 2020, he released a solo guitar instrumental album, Without a Word.
That album includes a cover of Walk Away Renée by The Left Banke that closes his latest album. And Abernethy’s itching to get out and play for an audience, except…
“Life is strange,” he says with a sigh. “I could not be more ready to go out and play for people, especially these songs — and of course no one is able to do that now. But it’s something we need.