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God Is in the Songs': Meet the Mormon Musician Who's Mixing Gospel, Blues and Country to Redefine Traditional Hymns


"I’m a believer and I’m a sinner."

Musician Mark Abernathy (Photo Credit: Mark Abernathy)

Led by guitarist Mark Abernathy, The Sabre Rattlers is a unique music initiative that features a rotating pool of performers -- individuals who collectively invoke a wide array of genres to create an unparalleled sound. From gospel to blues to Appalachian folk and country, Abernathy, a Mormon, and his associates use their talents to spread messages about God, history and life struggles.

The music is so intriguing, in fact, that it has attracted the attention of Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. After he heard The Sabre Rattlers' last album, "Twixt Me and the Peaceful Rest," a collection of LDS hymns, Reid was so blown away that he called the performer directly to tell him how much he enjoys the music.

Abernathy's passion runs deep. The musician told TheBlaze that he's been performing for the past 20 years or so -- an activity he began around the age of 12 or 13 after he told his parents that he wanted his first guitar. From then on, music became his life's passion.

"My dad had an old Gibson LG-2 that he had saved up to pay for when he was 16 or so and I started on that," he said. "When he saw that I was pretty serious he bought me an electric guitar."

Musician Mark Abernathy (Photo Credit: Mark Abernathy)

It didn't take long for Abernathy to more profoundly pursue his interests, as he started playing in local bands. Inevitably, he went to Berklee College of Music, later spent some time in Los Angeles writing music and then headed to Asia, where Sony BMG asked him to produce some Chinese artists. When that didn't work out, he found himself in Austin, Texas, in 2007, where he laid the framework for the Sabre Rattlers; it was in 2008 that the project officially took form.

"With the record industry in sharp decline, I felt like I had to decide how to stay engaged in music, given the fact that I didn’t care much for the music industry and industry trends," he told TheBlaze.

But music-producing can be expensive, especially without a major label to help break through the financial and strategic barriers that are ever-existent in the industry. One day, though, a friend surprised Abernathy, affording him the resources to do what he loves best -- simply make music.

Hear his song, "All Is Well," below:

"A good friend of mine, Monte Lee-Wen, who is an Austin-based commercial real estate developer -- he had me meet him at his office and essentially out of the blue gave me a check -- no strings attached -- to go into the studio again and basically just fulfill myself," the performer explained. "He really had a lot of faith in me. It was a real miracle."

Abernathy said that the money was certainly a tool that enabled him to record, but he also considered it a "spiritual gift." This generosity led him to essentially reboot his music, setting out to make a religious record rather than a secular one -- something he considered a tithe of sorts.

"I grew up playing in rock bands and I still love Led Zeppelin and AC-DC as much as anything, but a good deal of my earliest exposure to music was to hymns sung by my parents or in church and I’d always wanted to record some of the earliest songs I grew up with," he continued. "So this was a great opportunity and a great way to hit the reset button and...pay a musical tithe."

Listen to Abernathy's song, "The Spirit Of God Like A Fire Is Burning," below:

After examining some popular artists -- Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Elvis and others -- Abernathy realized that a common theme colored their backgrounds. Regardless of the music genre, these individuals had roots in gospel music. Rather than seeing these genres as separate, they began to become an amalgamate, as rock, country and other genres appeared to him as "extensions of gospel music in the grand scheme."

So, Abernathy took the seed money that was afforded him and began his journey. But what he assumed would be a simple, under-produced guitar, vocal or piano album comprised of hymns, quickly took on a life of its own. Sabre Rattlers ended up becoming the name for the project he produced -- a collection of talented artists and performers who came together to bring intriguing life to each of the album's tracks (read more about the new, follow-up CD that Abernathy is preparing for).

From Glenn Fukunaga who played with Bob Dylan and the Dixie Chicks to producer Lloyd Maines, the talent collective helped to create an album very different from what Abernathy originally envisioned. The songs on the resulting "Twixt Me and the Peaceful Rest" album are not only musically pleasing, but they are also robust in their inclusion of spiritual themes and messaging.

"Specifically...this record is a collection of songs that are loosely assembled around the Second-Great-Awakening period, around the early 1800s and around 1870 in its decline," he told TheBlaze. "I really wasn’t interested or drawn to anything but that period."

The Second Great Awakening was a time period in American history during which Protestantism experienced rapid growth and expansion. Occurring during the early 19th century, it was a time of profound spiritual fervency, as Christianity spread throughout the land. It essentially ended around the time of the American Civil War.

Listen to Abernathy's "How Firm a Foundation," below:

Naturally, faith is important to Abernathy, as he called it the motivation behind his album. He described himself as a "sinner," but noted the importance of his theological views in shaping his musical compositions. God, he says, is rooted deeply in America's music sphere.

"I’m a believer and I’m a sinner. That duality -- that struggle -- is manifest in the work and personal lives of the originators and pioneers of America music, Blues, Rock n’ Roll, Country -- all of it," he said. "I’m aware of the hypocrisy of singing ‘Jesus Be a Fence Around Me’ when I willfully make God-offending mistakes. But God is deep in the American music tradition and that’s the soundtrack that keeps me company and keeps me tethered."

As for his own life, Abernathy said that he sometimes feels like Jonah who can't outrun his calling. Making his music has been extremely rewarding -- but it also has its difficulties and challenges. At moments, the performer says that the Lord gives him "just enough to keep going but not much more." In the end, though, he knows that "God is in the music" and he often feels the Lord speaking to him.

"I do feel very blessed that people reach out to me and tell me that it has made an impact on them," he said. "It can be very easy to lose sight of gratitude, especially in our entitlement culture."

Considering that Abernathy is the main vision and voice behind Sabre Rattlers -- and taking into account the fact that it's a musical project based on his work and not a band, per se, TheBlaze asked what led him to choose the name. After all, he could have simply used "Mark Abernathy" or "The Mark Abernathy Band" or something else along those lines.

"It ‘Googled’ way better than 'Mark Abernathy,' which I had to share in the public sphere with chefs and mortgage lenders and insurance brokers -- all these ‘other’ Mark Abernathys," he joked. "And these songs, being as old as they are, were rather part of the public domain and I didn’t entirely feel like putting my name over them."

In New York City, where he lives with his family, Abernathy said that he does play with a trio under the name Sabre Rattlers, but when it comes to the recorded music, he simply uses the title to distinguish his likeness and work from the many others who share the same name. As far as the genre goes, he calls it "alt-country."

Performer Mark Abernathy (Photo Credit: Mark Abernathy)

And perhaps the name selection has worked to his advantage in capturing interest. As noted, Sen. Reid is a huge fan. After the first album was released in 2011, Abernathy remembers seeing a 202-area code on his phone. Assuming it was election-related spam (2o2 is a Washington, D.C. code), he ignored it. But when he checked his voicemail, Abernathy was in for a surprise.

"I actually saw the D.C. area code on my caller I.D. and skipped the call, thinking that it was spam. It wasn’t for another week -- shame on me -- that I checked my voicemail," he said. "And I immediately recognized the timbre of his voice and knew who it was."

Despite not necessarily agreeing with Reid on politics, Abernathy said that the senator was very kind, as the two have exchanged e-mails, with Reid even suggesting some hymns that he'd love for the musician to include on his subsequent albums.

Perhaps some of these suggestions will be taken, as Abernathy is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to raise the necessary funds to produce his follow-up CD. Watch him perform some of his music and discuss the new initiative, below:

Abernathy hopes that his songs -- and the energy of his music -- will resonate with listeners. He also believes that those who feel disconnected from faith and religion will potentially benefit by hearing the power inherent in the lyrics.

"I just wanted people to feel the words and the energy and power of those words," he said. "God is in the songs. I truly believe that."

You can follow The Sabre Rattlers on Facebook and read more about Abernathy on his official web site.


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