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Abby Bryant emerges from an upbringing in the church to define herself in secular music

Abby Bryant's music weaves influences of gospel, soul, country and rock.
Bruce McCamish
Abby Bryant's music weaves influences of gospel, soul, country and rock.

While Abby Bryant’s songs tell stories of her experiences, her voice is a roadmap of an even deeper history.

“I grew up in church music only—all gospel,” she said. “I’m always going to be rooted in that gospel sound and that soul sound. And growing up here in the South, the twang is kinda there too.

In hindsight, Bryant’s path seems pre-ordained, from devout Pentecostal choir singer to soul-exposed vocalist of a contemporary country-rock outfit. She’s just days away from a milestone gig, opening for Lucinda Williams in Black Mountain.

But despite releasing her debut album of original songs in 2021 and working on a new batch for 2023, Bryant said she’s still figuring out how her music reflects her relationship to faith, if at all.

"I say this very lovingly, but I’ve seen where the church has caused harm, and I see where it’s been good and brought people together and brought meaning into people’s lives,” she said. “I’m still reckoning with that.”

Bryant grew up in East Charlotte. Her father was an organist and choir director, and she recalls Aretha Franklin and Billy Preston also shaping her musical roots. She studied music therapy at Appalachian State University and grew serious about creating special lullabies for infants in neonatal intensive care units.

Secular music crept into her consciousness when she began singing in cover bands in Boone. When an internship working with infants brought Bryant to Charlotte, her entire band followed her there so they could continue playing. After earning her degree, Bryant turned away from music therapy and committed to pursuing life as a performer.

“My parents are really kind people. Ideally they would have loved for me to carry the torch for church music. So I had to have a lot of resolve in myself,” she said. “There’s kind of no halfway in, halfway out if you really want a career in this. You just sort of have to dive off the cliff and let the parachute catch you.”

In 2017, after her cover band dissolved, Bryant formed a band around her own music. Two years later, Downtown Abby and the Echoes reformed in Asheville.

"I had no idea when just casually making a Downtown Abby poster for our first bar show how tired I was going to get of being called Downtown Abby. That got really old,” she recalled with a laugh. “I’d be walking down the street and somebody would be like ‘There’s Downtown Abby,’ and I’d be like ‘We should change this soon.’”

Under her own name, Bryant and her band released the album “Not Your Little Girl” in 2021. Many of the songs reflect her disappointments in early love.

"This next album is gonna be grittier and have more of a rock feel,” she said. "I’ve had some real heartbreak and some real betrayal in relationships and just been through some personal things that are entirely more adult than the challenges when I wrote my first album.”

Tickets are already sold out for Aug. 20, when Abby Bryant opens for Lucinda Williams at the Pisgah Brewing Outdoor Stage in Black Mountain. As she prepares for the show, Bryant said she strives to someday write from a similar vulnerability and authenticity as Williams.

"I want to get there in my own way. I want to really be able to tap into the depths of my soul in that way,” she said. “Whether it will ever mean my lyrics being that visceral is to be determined.”

Matt Peiken was BPR’s first full-time arts journalist.