We Are Family Podcast, Episode 7: "Are You My Dad?" "Do You Need Me To Be?"

Bluegrass musician Barry Abernathy of Appalachian Road Show opens up about expanding his family through foster care and adoption. 

four children from the abernathy family
Photo: Courtesy of Barry Abernathy

This week's episode of We Are Family is all about adoption as hosts Julia Dennison and Shaun T talk with Grammy-nominated bluegrass musician Barry Abernathy of Appalachian Road Show about expanding his family.

With two teenage daughters, Abernathy and his wife thought they were done having children—that is, until they couldn't resist the pull to bring two young siblings into their home. After meeting the kids—Tyler and Zoey—who had been in eight different foster homes in under a year, Abernathy and his wife knew what they had to do. This past April, the family completed the adoption via Zoom and their family became whole.

"It was an honor to share this story, and I hope it inspires other parents that are considering adoption," says Abernathy. Thinking about becoming a foster or adoptive parent? You can find more on that here.

Upcoming episodes and topics this season include:

  • Parenting with disabilities
  • Divorce, co-parenting and blended families
  • Single-parent households
  • Multicultural parenting
  • The family you didn't know you had

Listen to We Are Family on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeart, TuneIn, Stitcher, Google and everywhere podcasts are available.

Listen to episode 7 right now: Parents.com/FamilyPod-Ep7

Plus, follow along here:

Barry: I walked in the room and he just looks up and said, "Hey, look, that's my dad." And he jumps up out of his seat and he runs up to the front of the class and just jumps up. And I'm 6'4" and he just lands about halfway up my body and he grabbed my face and said, "You my dad?" And I said, "Do you need me to be?" And he said, "You my dad." And he just kissed me right on the mouth. First time I ever seen him. And he said, "Hey look, that's my dad."

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Julia: Hi, I'm Julia Dennison.

Shaun: And I'm Shaun T.

Julia: And this is We Are Family, a podcast from Parents magazine. This show is all about celebrating the different ways there are to build and be a family—and how beautiful that diversity is.

Shaun: Today we've got a great story for you about foster care and adoption.

Julia: Our guest is bluegrass musician Barry Abernathy, who plays banjo in the band Appalachian Road Show. He and his wife have two teenage daughters, and until about a year ago, they thought their family was complete. They'd never considered becoming foster or adoptive parents. But then two kids came into their lives who changed that: 5-year-old Tyler and 6-year-old Zoey.

Shaun: Wait, they didn't want any more children and now they have a 5- and 6-year-old? I need to hear this.

Julia: Yeah, can you believe that? So I talked to Barry back in April, when we were all under strict social distancing. But that looked a lot different for his family in Ellijay, Georgia, than it did for mine in Queens.

Barry: So I live in the mountains, don't have a lot of traffic out here. I'm close to a mile from my, uh, neighbors, and I'm almost 20 miles from town, so life hasn't changed a whole lot, except for, I don't get to go on the road to play music right now. As far as hobbies and stuff, we do the same thing we always have. We'll ride around in the mountains and, you know, look at animals or go fishing or something like that, you know? So we, we've got it made pretty good out here.

abernathy family
Courtesy of Barry Abernathy

Julia: Barry is a big deal in the bluegrass world—he's an award-winning banjo player, and before getting together with his current group, Appalachian Road Show, he was one of the founders of the band Mountain Heart.

Barry was also born without fingers on one hand. But he didn't realize he was different until he started school.

Barry: I was born with no fingers on my left hand, just the thumb and a piece of the first finger. I can't recall noticing myself if there was a difference in me and anybody else until I got in school and living in a small town in the North Georgia mountains. Kids are cruel, you know? They hadn't been taught any better. My mom and dad never drew attention to it. They never mentioned it before I started school and then I started saying, you know, so and so tried to take a fight with me, or they did this and that, and they made fun of my hand and, and you know, why am I different? You know, mom would always say it's just the way God wanted you.

There's a reason for it. And he's got a plan and don't think nothing else of it. Don't worry about what somebody else says or thinks, you know. And that type of stuff sticks with you. Uh, I've never, I've never thought that I couldn't do anything.

Julia: As a teenager, Barry decided he wanted to learn to play the banjo.

Barry: I started when I was about 13 or 14, being interested in it, and my mom, you know, she said, I'm not trying to discourage you, but you know, you're not going to be able to play music honey with no fingers. And then I said, well, I'm going to try, but I've, I've studied the banjo. I think, you know, it's got open strings and you play it with a row.

You play it with three fingers. So you've got a finger hitting a different string at different times. You're not brushing, you're not strumming. And I said, I think I can do that. And I said, you know, I think there's ways of going about things. You can tune things different. There's always something you can do to make something happen.

Julia: So Barry started playing on his great-grandmother's old banjo. His mom told him that if he learned to play a song all the way through, she'd buy him a new one.

Barry: And she didn't have no idea she was about a month away from having to go get a mortgage. I told her, I said, well, if I learn how to play a song without messing up all the way through, will you buy me a Gibson?

She said, if you can play one straight through and not mess up, I'll buy you a Gibson. And they were expensive.

Julia: Oh, even I know that's a fancy one.

Barry: Yeah. So anyway, about a month I was playing a half a dozen tunes or so.

Julia: Barry built a successful music career and started a family with his wife Beverly. They have two daughters: Chassady, who's 18, and Emma, who's 16.

In high school, Chassady started working at a local daycare center. One day last year, she came home and told Barry about a brother and sister who were in foster care.

Barry: She said, "Daddy, you need to see these two kids that they brought in the daycare." She said, "They're so cute. They've had such a hard life. They really need somebody to help them." And I said, "Honey, you know, I'm 50. I'll be 50 years old, a couple of months. I can't, I can't raise kids again." She said, "Well, I'm not saying that. I'm just saying, I just feel like they need help, you know?"

And she said, uh, the little boy is, he was 4 at the time, uh, Tyler, she said he's got a hand exactly like yours. Anyway, he's got the same birth defect.

Exactly the same. I've seen people with the same type of birth defect. I've never seen anybody exactly the same, same hand, same thumb, same piece of first finger and all that. Looking just like mine, and anyway, cute as a button. He looks like the kid off of Jerry McGuire.

Julia: Chassady learned that Tyler and his sister, Zoey, might have to leave their current foster home. They'd already been in eight different foster care placements in ten months.

Barry: She said, people have them now, you know, they, they might not, uh, they might not keep them, you know, it wasn't looking good, Anyway, a few days passed and I was getting ready to go out on the road. I think it was a long Wednesday evening and I was taking my youngest daughter to my mother's to stay till my wife got off work and I got up the highway and, and I'm just gonna tell you this, I don't know, you know, how your audience or anybody else believes. I'm just going to tell it the way it happened. I felt like God got into the car with me. It felt like he just got in the car with it. We were about two miles away from the daycare center and all of a sudden it just, real heavy drawing just kind of came over me.

And I looked at my youngest daughter and I said, honey I need to go by and see them kids for a minute, and she said, "Daddy, I'm your baby." She said, "I knew you was going to do that. I could just feel it." And so anyway, we were about two miles and I said, well, I'm just going to go by and I can maybe see them.

Julia: We'll hear what happened next after a short break. Stay with us.

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Julia: Welcome back to We Are Family. Today we're talking to banjo player Barry Abernathy. He and his wife Beverly had never thought about becoming foster or adoptive parents. But that changed after their daughter Chassady told them about two kids at the child care center where she worked: Tyler and Zoey. Barry was in the car with their younger daughter, Emma, when he felt called to go see them.

Barry: I go by the daycare and I go in and I asked Miss Tammy if I could go see those kids that had come in that Chassady was telling me about and she said sure. So I go back to the classroom, the first classroom, and Tyler was in it.

It was the 3-, 4-year-olds, 5-year-olds and stuff. Well, my daughter had shown him videos of me playing. We had just recorded a couple of music videos with Appalachian Road Show, and one of them was "Dance, Dance, Dance," the old Steve Miller Band tune. And we kinda made a fiddle, fiddle tune and dance, a real, real dancing tune that's kind of a tempo thing, the way we do it.

And, uh, he had been listening to it and singing and dancing, you know, and so I walk in the room, I'd never seen him, he'd never seen me in person.

Barry Abernathy and son playing instruments
Courtesy of Barry Abernathy

Julia: Tyler was around 4 at the time. Barry says he didn't know his biological father.

Barry: I walked in the room and he just looks up and said, "Hey, look, that's my dad." And he jumps up out of his seat and he runs up to the front of the class and just jumps up. And I'm 6'4" and he just lands about halfway up my body and he grabbed my face and said, "You my dad?" And I said, "Do you need me to be?" And he said, "You my dad." And he just kissed me right on the mouth. First time I ever seen him. And he said, "Hey look, that's my dad." Told all his classmates, that's my dad. And then he was so thrilled, he thought I was his daddy. And, uh, cause we had hands alike. So anyway, I left and, and, uh, I went and met Zoey and she was, she was not as warm.

Julia: Zoey is a year older than Tyler, so she was more aware of what was happening when they went into foster care—and understandably, she had her guard up.

Barry: It took her a little while to warm up to everybody. She was, she's a little different personality. Um, she wasn't looking for the same thing Tyler was looking for. She, what she knew was that she had been moved eight times in less than a year, and she was getting used to shutting people out.

Julia: After meeting Zoey and Tyler for the first time at the daycare center, Barry said goodbye. But he couldn't shake the feeling that he needed to do something.

Barry: I was leaving to go play music on the road. I was going to Nashville to pick my fiddle man and my partner up. I had about 10 hours worth of driving and I left and I called my wife and I told her I went to see the kids and she said, I did too at lunch and I said, really? She said, yeah, and neither one of us knew the other one was going, you know, we didn't know the other one was going to go. So it was kinda, it was, it was on both of us at the same time. She said, well, what are we going to do, and I said, well, we can't take any kids.

She said, I know. She said, well, how do you feel? I said, well, I feel like, you know, if I told you how I feel right now, I feel like it's like we're being called to do it almost. It feels like it's a calling or a drawing and so I started to pray about it. So I hung up the phone with her and I was probably 45, 50 minutes out of town, headed to Nashville and I just decided to pray about it. And then I just got serious with God and he got more serious with me. And it was, it was just, I don't know how to explain it except for, it was just heavy. It was just a feeling I was going to have to do it. And I, this has all happened and this was all, all of a sudden, you know, I got this feeling that say 2:30, 3 o'clock in the afternoon and by 5 o'clock in the afternoon I've got this feeling like I'm going to have to take these kids in for some reason. So I prayed about it and I argued with God about it. And finally when I got done, and I just said, people would've thought I was crazy if they drove by and drove by me and see me talking to myself.

Julia: Barry and his wife learned that Tyler and Zoey had to leave their foster home and would be transferred into a group home a few counties away. Since Chassady had been their teacher, the Abernathys got permission to bring the kids home for a weekend.

Barry: We heard about it and my wife couldn't stand it. So my wife FaceTimes me and she's got the kids with her. And that pretty much was it. Uh, you know, long story short, that was in middle of June of 2019 so we started the process of becoming foster parents.

We took the classes and, uh, I mean, it was amazing how it all came together. It's not, it hadn't been easy, but, but it was meant to be.

Julia: A few months later, the Abernathys began the process of legally adopting Tyler and Zoey. And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Barry: So finally, last Monday we just went through with the adoption on Zoom. We sit right here just talking. I'm kind of like, I'm talking to you. It just turns Zoom on on the computer, and it had the judge and about probably 20 people, friends of my wife's and mine that were all on Zoom with us and just celebrated with us.

And it was a big, big time and Tyler, the little boy, when it was over with, he said, uh, the judge said, well, y'all are Abernathys now, welcome to the Abernathy family, and I started chatting and he looked at me and he said, "Yeah, baby."


Julia: Tyler sounds like such a character.

Barry: He is a character.

Julia: Oh my goodness. Oh, that is just the sweetest story. I'm so sappy now that I'm a mom. I'm a mom of a 3-year-old. So like any story of young kids like this hits me in the heart. So it really felt like it was meant to be. And so basically, if you're coming up on a year now since meeting the kids and then so much has progressed and then congratulations on the adoption.

I'm so glad to be able to be speaking to you right, right after that happened. And the fact that it could happen over Zoom, it makes you think, what kind of things could that open up for others, for future families. So it's such a wonderful, heartwarming story. So how does it feel parenting young kids now as an older dad? Do you feel like you're doing anything differently now than you did before?

Barry: I have noticed that, you know, with our kids, we kind of got out of the habit of sitting around the table, having supper together, having prayer, uh, talking to each other.

And that's something that these kids really needed. And it's amazing. You don't, you don't realize how much a kid really needs stuff like that til you see these kids that have never had it. And, uh, you know, now we wait 'til everybody's home and we fix supper and, uh, we all sit down at the table at the same time, and we have prayer and we eat and we talk. And, you know, sometimes we talk, sometimes we argue, but it's just, it's a family, you know, but it's, uh, imagine two teenagers and a, and a 5- and 6-year-old. So that's one part of life that I've really enjoyed getting back to. The little kids love it. Tyler, he jumped, he wants to jump up and down and give everybody a kiss and hug because he can't sit still.

He has a hard time sitting still and he'll say, mommy, I hug you, I hug you. You give her a hug. And I'm like, you got to sit in your seat. I wanna give mom a kiss, he'll say. How do you deny a kid giving his mama a kiss?

Julia: You can't. No. So I guess that makes me wonder what, what kind of things have you seen that these kids have really craved, and what are you teaching them about what it means to be a family?

Barry: Well, both of them are different. Uh, the little boy, I think he, to start with, he craved a daddy. You could tell he was, it was just daddy, daddy, daddy. He was stuck to me like glue. And now he's, he's tight with both, both my kids, Chassady and Emma, and he's a rough houser. He loves to, I mean, he's just a little, he's all boy, you know, and he wants to, when Chassady comes home from work, he's ready for when she gets here, she'll come in and she'll plop down on the couch or on the end of the bed or wherever she's at, and she'll plop down to talk to us and, and uh, he'll sneak up behind her and draw back as hard as he can, smack her right in the tail [both laugh] and take off running.

It's just like, Tyler, I'm going to get you and he'll take off running , laughin'. And does the same thing sometimes with Emma, Emma is, uh, 16 and, and Emma, she'll say, "Tyler I love you. I love you," and he'll say "Nope. Me not your best friend no more. Me, not your best friend." Just it to get a rise out of 'em, you know, that takes uh, the cut up, he'll do it.

He craved a daddy to start with. Now he has that with his sisters. He's real close with Zoey. And, uh. I mean it's, it's amazing how, how much they love each other cause they've had to be together through all this. You know, that's the only constant that they had through all this.

I mean, 634 days that they were in state custody. So they had all that time that it was just them. You know, they had different families that were keeping them. And so after 634 days, they're finally in their forever home, you know, so they're changed even in the last week. The change, like the little girl only, she was, uh, she was a little tougher to crack, you know, early on. She, she wanted to love everybody and she wanted to feel secure. She wanted to feel safe. You could tell that, but she, she didn't, she had a wall up and, and she just, uh, you know, it was almost like if she'd done anything that you tried to correct her on, she would just go blank. She'd just go blank. She could not tell you what you was trying to correct her on and she couldn't tell you. You learn in those classes that trauma, you know, trauma comes in different ways and a lot of it's just neglect.

But just since last Monday, since the adoption was final, during the adoption, she cried. She's 6-years-old when she cried during the adoption and they were happy, happy tears. And after the adoption, she, uh, she started changing immediately.

And it was like all of a sudden she's telling everybody she loves them and she's coming to give you hugs that she wouldn't give you before. Um, she's, you know, she feels part of the family. She feels like she belongs now. And Tyler always did because he, he was either too young or just, uh, just happy go lucky enough not to care.

My eyes were really opened after the adoption. After about two days, I told my wife, I said, is it just me or you, do you notice a huge difference in Zoey? She said, Oh gosh, I mean it's unbelievable. She would, uh, she would lose stuff and she would lie about it. And just little things like that, they just, you know, it's just behavior from trauma is all it is. And now she's, she's more truthful.

And she wants to help do everything, you know? So it's amazing the turnaround in it. And I just hope that God continues to bless them and help them, you know? I mean, I'll help them all I can and my wife will, but you know, at the end of the day, it's gonna be, this is, I've left this up to God. I'm doing, I'm going to do all I can and leave it up to him because you know, it's, they've been through a lot. They really have.

Julia: Absolutely. I'm sure there's a sense of security that she has when they adopted or had, when the adoption finally came through. Um, those kids are so lucky to have you, but I'm sure you also feel so lucky to have them. What advice would you give anyone considering becoming a foster parent or adopting a child?

Barry: You know the classes they say, you know, the classes that you take to become a foster parent. I will say this, they were aggravating to go to, you had to sit five hours at a time and you know, when you've got life going on, those are hard. The courses are not hard courses. It's just if you have to sit and listen and take notes and do some of the tests and stuff, but there's a lot of information in there about kids that have, that have dealt with trauma and neglect and, and some sexual abuse and some of the things like that.

You learn about all that, and you see, you see examples of what some children have been through, and there's thousands and thousands and thousands of kids looking for homes. If somebody, if somebody is able to, and I don't think nobody probably feels like they're able to, but I mean, I've seen a huge difference in these kids' lives already. A huge difference. And the way they act and the way they conduct themselves and the way they feel about themselves.

Julia: Another new development: Tyler wants to play music, just like his dad.

Barry: He can sing melody, even though he don't say words playing all the time. He's on pitch and, uh, he'll take a mandolin. While I'm playing the banjo, he'll, he'll beat on it and he'll beat in time with me.

And he's never been around music before this, but he'll be the man and he'll be in time and patting his foot one, one beat.

Julia: In a video recorded of the two of them, Tyler's sitting in a rocking chair, next to Barry, and he starts tapping his bare foot right on top of his dad's.

Barry: You're slapping the mandolin with other beats. You know, I've just hit it open and let him play in the open key that I'm in, you know, so music has always been a huge part of my life, and I hope it is with these kids.

Julia: Thank you so much, Barry. It was so great chatting with you.

Barry: Well, I appreciate it so, so much. Y'all have a wonderful day.

Shaun:Julia, you know how we talk about getting teary-eyed on this show? That story definitely brings up a lot of emotion for me. Every kid needs love and a safe place to call home. I'm so happy for the Abernathy family.

Julia: Me too. And if you're thinking about becoming a foster or adoptive parent, you can learn more at parents.com/wearefamilypodcast—we've got links to stories in our show notes.

Shaun: And Barry's band, Appalachian Road Show, has a new album out called Tribulation. Make sure you check it out.

Julia:That's all for this episode. Tune in next week, because we've got another great show for you on a subject near and dear to me: single parenting. Thanks for listening, and we'll catch you next time on We Are Family.

Thanks to our production team at Pod People: Rachael King, Eliza Lambert, Susie Armitage, and Lene Bech Sillisen. This show was recorded in New York and Arizona, edited in New York City, and can be found wherever you get your podcasts. You can find out more at parents.com/podcast. You can find Parents on Instagram at @Parents. And you can follow Shaun at @ShaunT, and Julia at @juliadennison.

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