Breakout band is bound for Mt. Pleasant
By A.J. Panian
Published: Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
There was a time, one which now seems like a distant memory, when crowds of fans didn't swarm to soak up the sounds of star singer/musician Chris “Abby” Abbondanza.
In fact, there were once nights when Abbondanza, a Norvelt native, would eye the virtually empty expanse of a small local bar room prior to a gig and call in the figurative cavalry, said his mother, Linda Abbondanza.
“In the very beginning, he'd sometimes call me and say ‘Mom, it's pretty empty tonight,' and I would get all his friends together and we'd come out to see him play,” she said.
That was all long before Abbondanza's talent took him from barroom stages, local karaoke contests and backyard barbecues, all the way to coast-to-coast concert tours with the Povertyneck Hillbillies — a band founded in 2000 which, in its time, boasted the seal of a major record label, three studio recordings and a fervent, travel-ready following.
“My family and all my best friends live in Norvelt and Mt. Pleasant, and they've all witnessed it, to where I was playing at house parties to the point where I was playing in front of thousands,” said Abbondanza, 41. “We were playing 225 shows a year, and we probably did that for four or five years, from California to the East Coast.”
After a period of dormancy following the 2008 dissolution of the Povertyneck Hillbillies, Abbondanza — a 1990 Mt. Pleasant Area graduate — and five other members of that band recently formed a new group — The Hillbilly Way.
The new band had a kickoff concert Aug. 25, 2012, at CONSOL Energy Park in Washington County.
“It's definitely country with an edge,” Abbondanza said.
Along with Abbondanza, the band's lead vocalist, other members of the burgeoning band include keyboardist Dave Cramer, drummer Ryan Lucotch, bass guitarist Jeff Volek, lead guitarist David “Junior” Guthrie, and steel guitarist Bob “Crafty” Crafton.
“We as musicians and vocalists have all matured and grown,” Abbondanza said. “Everybody's at a different stage of life, we handle things differently.”
The band was recently voted Best Country Band in Pittsburgh Magazine's “Best of the ‘Burgh 2013” Readers' Poll.
Froggy 103.5 FM regularly plays the group's latest hit, “My Kinda Sunday Drive.”
“We have a four-song EP out right now with three singles that Froggy's playing heavily,” Abbondanza said. “Froggy's been a big help building a bridge from Povertyneck to the Hillbilly Way ... it's happening a lot quicker than we thought it would.”
Group is festival bound
The Hillbilly Way will entertain those attending the 27th annual Mt. Pleasant Glass & Ethnic Festival, slated for Sept. 27-29 in the borough.
The band will perform at 8 p.m. Sept. 27 at the Gazebo stage.
It will mark the 14th consecutive year that Abbondanza will perform at the festival, either as a member of a band or as a solo act.
“The great thing is there is always that hometown support,” said Abby Abbondanza. “Any time I have opportunity to perform at that festival, I take it. To see what it's evolve into over the years, it's really great.”
In the late 1990s, borough Manager Jeff Landy, who in 1986 co-founded the festival with borough Mayor Jerry Lucia, gave Abbondanza a shot at performing at the event with a pickup outfit he formed called “The El Dorado Band.”
“Mr. Landy set us up right there in front of where the (veterans') memorial sits now,” Abbondanza said.
During the years Abbondanza was part of the Povertyneck Hillbillies, the band played the festival every year between 2005 and 2008.
Abbondanza said he then secured his own recording contract and has since played the festival as a solo act.
Landy said he is proud to make Abbondanza part of the event's entertainment lineup.
“Abby's a local boy who has always made us proud that we helped get his career started,” said Landy, who added that Abbondanza finished in the top three in the Karaoke Countdown at the festival back in 1997. “We hope his career continues and that he also has a chance to perform for his local fans.”
Artist has a plan for the future
The Hillbilly Way is currently in the process of recording a full-length record, Abbondanza said.
“We're going back and forth to Nashville,” he said. “We're going to do part of it here. I wrote most of the stuff.”
One of the album's songs, titled “Miracle Man,” is a collaborative songwriting effort between Abbondanza and Scott Blasey, a Connellsville native and lead singer of The Clarks. The two have performed together many times at Leo and Sons Grille 31 in the borough.
“My vocals have gotten stronger, even my songwriting has grown, I'm writing pop, country and rock now,” Abbondanza said.
The Hillbilly Way will play a total of 40 shows before year's end, he added.
“We're going to keep it around that, like the Clarks, we want to keep that demand up,” Abbondanza said.
Around the area, Abbondanza's following will never fade, as it includes some of his lifelong friends, including Mike Smith and Dave King, both of Mt. Pleasant Township.
Smith recalled times when Abbondanza would play backyard pool parties during the festival at a house Smith shared with his sister, Vickie, along Washington Street in Mt. Pleasant.
“He used to play on the pool deck,” said Smith of those times. “That had to be in 1999 and 1998.”
King remembers nights sitting around a campfire, listening to Abbondanza play his guitar and sing during trips to a camp in Marienville, Forest County.
“A lot of his early songs with the Hillbillies, he wrote up at camp,” King said.
Smith and King, along with fellow friends Ronnie Zimmerman and Greg Leechalk, were at the Long Branch Saloon in Connellsville the first night Abbondanza performed with the Povertyneck Hillbillies.
“We said ‘This is really something,'” King said. “One thing about Abby, he never forgot about his friends.”
And of Abbondanza's dedication to playing the festival?
“He takes playing in this community to heart, he'd do it for free,” King said.
And one of the fans Abbondanza pleases the most is his father, Dante. “We always wish he'd play closer to home more often, so it's great that he's playing the festival again,” Dante Abbondanza said.
And Linda Abbondanza said she is confident the crowds will be there to see Abby perform.
“He feels good, I can tell, when he's up there playing on the gazebo,” Linda Abbondanza said. “The fans have been wonderful. I can't tell you how they support him from everywhere, they never stopped following him.”
A.J. Panian is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-547-5722 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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