My first exposure to the music of Abbie Gardner came in 2018 with her album Wishes on a Neon Sign, which nicely showcased the singer-songwriter-resonator guitarist’s versatility as she guided us on a journey through some of the contours of her heart and soul. I loved her voice, by turns fragile and powerfully confident, and her tasteful and effective dobro work, which was cast in acoustic small-band arrangements that ranged from simmering jazz to countryish weepers to a rollicking zydeco number. At the time, I was not aware that her first album had come out 14 years earlier (and featured her better-known father, jazz pianist Herb Gardner), nor that in between she had spent years touring and recording with a marvelous and quite popular folkish trio called Red Molly with fellow singers and songwriters Laurie MacAllister and Molly Venter (who replaced original member Carolann Solebello in 2010). I only discovered them quite recently and now I can’t get enough of their incredible harmonies—think the late 1980s Dolly Parton/Emmylou Harris/Linda Ronstadt collaboration, but leaning a bit less country.
But liking Wishes on a Neon Sign did not prepare me for the sheer brilliance and power of Gardner’s latest album, DobroSinger, which is as pure a “solo” album as you’ll find—it’s live takes of just Gardner’s voice and an arsenal of resonators: a Beard custom solid mahogany Model E with a weight-relieved neck and Hipshot Doubleshot bridge; National NRP with lap-style conversion; and a Beard Deco Phonic Model 37. In a sense, though, it’s almost like a duo album because her evocative guitar is a second voice throughout, sometimes singing in unison, in harmony other times, or answering as in a conversation with the singer. The playing and singing are both impeccable and loaded with personality. You can hear every nuance of the slide, smooth one moment or rattling slightly at the end of a phrase like punctuation; and her intimate, pitch-perfect vocals—wistful, playful, confessional—sound like they’re dancing with the guitar.
Nearly half the 11 tunes were written by Gardner alone; four others with collaborators Molly Venter, Will Kimbrough, Andrew Green, and Janie Barnett; and two covers. Resonators seem to give nearly everything either a country or bluesy lilt, but there’s lots of range within those styles, just as there is much emotional range in the songs, most of which deal with the highs, lows, and mysteries of relationships. In one tune she paints this lovely image: “There’s something about a waltz I adore/ the romance in that simple dance, gliding ’cross the floor/ A sentimental melody with your cheek warm on mine/ my heart beats, only in three quarter time.” But then there’s this romantic curveball in another tune: “Too bright, too loud/ Here it comes, headache pound/ My brain feels like broken dishes/ I had one too many kisses.”
Taken together, the songs on DobroSinger paint a broad emotional landscape, rich with color and insight. And it ends with a perfect grace note: a gorgeous, unadorned version of the early ’50s pop ballad “You Belong to Me” (“See the pyramids along the Nile/ Watch the sunrise on a tropic isle…”) that is the very essence of romantic longing and affection.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.