The Sabre Rattlers and the Americana hymn revival

Neylan McBaine is one of our favorite guests at BCC; we’re glad she’s returned to contribute her thoughts on a very talented group of LDS musicians.

Growing up in a home with an opera singer for a mother and all of Manhattan’s Mormon musical elite cycling through the open door of our Lincoln Center apartment, I have always appreciated our latter-day hymns to be canonical in content but not in style. Pianist David Fletcher sat at my piano for hours, with me as a teenager leaning admiringly against the piano’s crook, improvising riffs on “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” or “The Spirit of God” and encouraging me to play a third-hand obbligato to “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” Cellists would pick out plaintive harmonies to “Amazing Grace,” and, in a parlor trick adapted from my mother’s childhood, we would mix and match lyrics with tunes of different hymns. (Have you ever sung “Joseph’s First Prayer” to the tune of “Jesus, Lover of My Soul”?) There was no sanctimonious devotion to 19th century Protestant four-part harmony in my home.

Sabre Rattlers' Mark Abernathy

These were times of worship for me as a youth growing into my testimony, times when praising God really meant something vital, deliberate and demanding. On Friday night, I was encouraged to praise that way again. In a spacious home overlooking the Salt Lake Valley, Mark Abernathy, a New York-based guitarist and graduate of the Berklee College of Music, welcomed about 100 guests to a private concert where he not only embraced his beloved acoustic guitar, but also embraced the huge range of potential in our hymns. Pulling arrangements from his Americana gospel ensemble, the Sabre Rattlers, and his ensemble’s recent album, Twixt Me And The Peaceful Rest, Abernathy explored gospel, blues, Appalachian folk, traditional country, early rock’n’roll to the likes of “Israel, Israel God Is Calling,” “Now Let Us Rejoice,” “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief” and other familiar hymns. Joining him that night on acoustic and electric guitar was BYU student Matthew Clayton (himself an organ performance major), a descendant of William Clayton who wrote the words “Come, Come Ye Saints,” and Abernathy was visibly moved by the fact that his own performance of that hymn was accompanied by the lyricist’s relative while we were all looking over the valley Clayton had dedicated his life to finding. It was impossible for the audience not to be overwhelmed, too, by the significance of these hymns in the history of our people and in our own spiritual journeys.

Scattered in the two-hour mix was some Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, and Tom Petty, but it was the hymns, including the 1929 hymn “I’ll Fly Away” (popularized on the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack) that got me and the rest of the audience singing along, clapping, and feeling that tingle of collective, congregational worship that comes from the free release of words and music combined in a cathartic expression of what’s going on in our souls. Is there place for that open-hearted praise in our Sunday meetings? Perhaps context is everything, and the stylized reverence of our quotidian Sunday singing will always be safest. (Although now beloved in New York and Austin, TX, a past home, Abernathy did tell of a time he played “Put Your Shoulder To the Wheel” in a 1920s piano cabaret style and quickly exited the building directly after to avoid meeting the bishopric’s disapproving glances.) But by bringing the kind of personal hymn explorations I experienced in my home as a child to a commercial audience through his performances and recent album, Abernathy gives us all the tools we need to in praise in our homes, cars, gyms or wherever else we love to belt aloud in joy.


  1. Wowza that all sounds amazing!

  2. I just went and listened with my ears instead of imagining with my brain. This is exceptional. I have a grandmother that plays bass guitar, grandfather that plays sax in a band (when health permits anymore) and sometimes a hymn or two are in their play list, those are my favorite. This speaks to my soul. Tears in my eyes, my body swaying, my feet are keeping time, I am in heaven.

  3. Random coincidence–I play with Mark in his gigs around NYC, and we’re playing at library at Columbia Teachers’ College tonight at 6. If you’re in the area, come by and check us out! Perfect blend of Gillian Welch and W.W. Phelps…

  4. I’m thrilled to hear about this. I’ve been searching for this kind of music, I even put out facebook messages begging somebody to make it since I don’t have the theory skills to do it myself. I grew up singing gospel and blues and was often criticized for “inappropriate” singing at church, but I could hear the potential in our music. I’m going to wear a digital groove in this stuff.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for the great report. I love this kind of stuff.

  6. Carl Youngblood says:

    I so wish we could have arrangements like these in our sacrament meetings.

  7. I still ragtime piano some of the turn of the century hymns like Carry On, The Light Divine, You Can Make the Pathway Bright, etc.

    I also do a mean Dave Brubeck impersonation of Where Love Is from the Primary Songbook.

  8. I was at the concert and everyone I spoke with had the same thing to say–it would be great to have this kind of music in our meetings. Abernathy is at once earthy and spiritual which are the key requirements in any good worship band and listening to him it was easy to feel the joyous excitement one imagines the early saints experienced as Joseph revealed heady doctrine after heady docrine. After the concert my wife promptly downloaded 10 or so songs which we have been enjoying the last week.

  9. Mathew, Mark Abernathy played acoustic guitar and sang at a stake priesthood meeting in Manhattan. It came across as very spiritual and very appropriate.

    Kyle, wish I could make it over there tonight. I’m sure it will be awesome.

  10. that would be cool if one day we can have music in all lds churches that has a style other than somber. dont let the hippie NYC wards have all the fun.

  11. Mark is a great talent and his new CD is outstanding. I particularly like the “Come, Come ye Saints” and “Now let us rejoice” tracks.

  12. Mark is a great guy. Delighted to hear he is up to great things.

  13. whitney clayton says:

    Couldn’t have said it better, Neylan. Fantastic review. Love the album and love Mark’s work. The concert was fantastic!

  14. Mommie Dearest says:

    It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine this music performed in outlier ward and stake meetings, but you’ll know we’ve arrived in a new place when such a thing is performed in General Conference.

  15. Ed Torriente says:

    Mark is an amazing musician and a personal friend. He performs all types of music very well. I really enjoy how he performs the hymns and look forward to seeing him in concert soon!

%d bloggers like this: