There is an unexpected calmness to John Calvin Abney’s new record, Familiar Ground. Perhaps it’s because he crafted most of the tracks with his friend, touring partner, and co-producer John Moreland. Maybe it’s because it’s his fifth studio album and he feels less pressure to prove himself inside the studio. Or it could simply be that Abney, who’s used to playing anywhere from 150-250 live shows a year, all of a sudden was greeted with a break from the road due to the coronavirus pandemic that shut the music industry down in March.
Whatever the reason, Familiar Ground is a beautiful, near-gentle collection of nine tracks that find Abney exploring his new normal of 2020.
Opening with the statement of the year, “When This Blows Over” sets the foundation of fragile hope that shapes the rest of Familiar Ground. “When this blows over,” he sings, instantly connecting with anyone who’s listening, “I’m coming over to see you, my friend.”
While there is a beauty to the instrumentation on Familiar Ground — Abney plays guitar, piano, and Mellotron; Moreland contributes drums and bass; Don Eanes adds his talents on Rhodes and B3; and Whit Wright saturates the LP with steel guitar — the steady constant throughout is Abney’s voice. With a vulnerability reminiscent of Elliott Smith and a friendliness evoking Neal Casal, Abney’s voice shines as he weaves together stories of life that appear deeply personal and yet immediately relatable. On the album’s title track, Abney traverses lyrics of hope and love that bare his soul while inviting strangers into the story. As he sings in the opening and closing of the song, “If someone’s missing they may not want to be found / It’s best to leave it prodigal and find your familiar ground.”
The piercing truths of Familiar Ground are captured on each track, but they come through most profoundly on “Shine Like a Friend.” Moreland’s simple, driving percussion keeps Abney on pace as he sings of the transience of relationships, admitting that friends blow away like the desert sands. But Abney lets hope have the last word as he repeats, “Maybe I won’t.”
It’s that clinging to hope, regardless of how delicate or fleeting it may seem, that lifts Familiar Ground up as a record to turn to when darkness draws near. More than the nine individual songs that comprise an album, Abney has created a world in which hope is not out of reach, no matter the distance.
In 2020, and truly in any year, this is the kind of world we need.