When Abe is in Mobile he often works in his home studio, decorated with his paintings and mementos from the past. // Photos by Elizabeth Gelineau
Abe Partridge has been home for exactly six days. “I think this makes the twenty-sixth day that I’ve slept in my own bed since the second week of January,” he says with a grin and Southern drawl as he cracks the outer shell of a steamed blue crab. “Coming home feels great, primarily for the fact that my family is here. The longer I have been away, the greater the homecoming feels.” Fresh off a three-and-a-half-week European tour, Abe is entitled to some relaxation. But that’s not quite how he lives life. Just as soon as he sets his bags down and takes a breath, he’s back on the road again to play his music to the crowds or showcase his art in exhibitions across the country. “We’re headed to Kentucky after this,” he says, referencing the Maryland-style crab dinner prepared by his wife Cathy spread across the table. A car with a trunkful of his paintings waits in the driveway, ready for the couple to show during Minnie Adkins Day in Sandy Hook. “In my life, if we don’t squeeze things in, they don’t happen,” says Abe.
Call it a matter of circumstance or habit but living life on the fly has paid off big time for Abe, with his greatest achievement from this lifestyle occurring as a student at a small Bible college near Knoxville. One day in 2001, his plans were interrupted by the sight of a bus. He had plans with a friend to go hunting that day, but quickly called to explain his cancellation. “I told my friend, ‘If there’s an empty seat by a pretty girl, I’m gonna go wherever this bus is going,’” laughs Abe, dipping a crab claw into apple cider vinegar and then into J.O. crab seasoning. He climbed aboard and, as it turns out, there was an empty seat right next to a pretty girl named Cathy. “I found out the bus was going all the way to Nashville, so I got to sit by Cathy for four hours,” he says, shooting a triumphant smile across the table in her direction. The bus was headed for Nashville to see the Christmas lights at Opryland. The participants who had registered beforehand — everyone but Abe — got a bagged lunch. Cathy and Abe shared hers between them. A true musician at heart, Abe skipped the planned outing when they arrived in Nashville, making his way through the woods until he reached the Gibson guitar store. He returned to the bus just in time to depart — and not get kicked out of school. Two years later, the couple was married the day after Abe graduated from Bible college. Today, they may be raising their kids in Abe’s hometown but plenty of Cathy’s Maryland upbringing permeates. It’s evident today as they feast on Cathy’s soon-to-be-famous steamed crabs, a regular treat in the Partridge household. “Steamed crabs are Abe’s favorite thing I make besides my buttermilk biscuits,” says Cathy. Descended from three generations of Maryland watermen, she has mastered the method.
Abe’s candor and humility wouldn’t betray the fact that his life reads like a fiction book you can’t put down. It’s all real, though, with music intertwined throughout every step. After graduating, Abe was an Independent Fundamental Baptist preacher and led his own congregation at a church in Middlesborough, Kentucky. However, life, as it often does, took a turn. “When we were living in Middlesborough, the whole preaching thing was kind of coming apart,” says Cathy, “so he started writing songs and painting to deal with that.” Abe eventually left preaching — and Middleborough along with it — at 27, coming back to Mobile. He joined the Air Force at 28, traveling to Qatar on Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. He is still in the reserves today.
When Abe was stationed overseas, his music and songwriting were still his therapy, made purely for himself and unpublicized to the masses. After he came back home, something changed. Finally, at 35, he started playing his songs for audiences. “After going to the desert, when I came back home, I just had the nerve to do it and the feeling that I should,” he says. “I started playing and performed in a songwriter contest in Orange Beach. It ended up changing my whole life.”
In just a few years, Abe’s world now revolves around music. He put out his second record, “Love in the Dark,” under Baldwin Co. Public Records, a Loxley-based record label, in May. While Abe casually describes the record as “just a collection of songs,” the songs in question dig deep into his inner thoughts. Insights into his faith journey, for example, can be found in the lyrics of the title track. The verses paint a picture of his preaching days, as the raspy-voiced crooner sings, “I went out to disciple, to set the mountains ablaze / And I had every answer, I knew just how to be saved / I thought I wanted to be a preacher, maybe I just wanted a stage / ‘Cause I was called to the floor and I didn’t have nothing to say.” The chorus skips to the present day, keeping it short and sweet: “And now, Lord / I ain’t asking for a brand-new start / I just need Your direction / on finding love in the dark.” Abe jumped on tour almost right away in support of the release, playing shows in the United States and abroad. “I’m on a perpetual tour,” he says as he peels crab shell from meat. “I’m really proud of the record.” A touring artist with a home base in Mobile deals with their own unique challenges and, in the same vein, unique influences. “You can’t go too far south. I am hours away from what is usually the first show on my tours,” Abe says. “However, I was born and raised here, in Semmes actually. I create art from a very personal part of myself so, in that way, Mobile will always be tied to my art in some way.”
Left, Abe’s original piece “Transcendence.” Right, Abe’s original piece “Never Stare Into The Eyes of a Chicken.”
His music has not only led him to widespread recognition and European tours but also to another medium: podcasting. Abe cohosts “Alabama Astronaut” alongside Ferrill Gibbs. The podcast predictably centers around music history but not the backstory of the kind of music you might expect. It covers undocumented music, songs that you might attempt to Google the lyrics of and come up with nothing. Specifically, the songs of serpent-handling churches in Appalachia. “The podcast came out in September and it’s doing better statistically than anything I’ve ever put out,” he says with a shy but proud edge to his voice. “It has over 50,000 downloads,” Cathy adds for emphasis. Abe was introduced to serpent-handling churches while preaching in Kentucky. He met Jamie Coots, the famed pastor from the National Geographic series “Snake Salvation.” At the time, Coots ran the biggest snake-handling church in Eastern Kentucky — in Middlesborough, of all places. In 2020, Abe began visiting various serpent-handling churches. Something about the music moved him. Then he discovered that the music that enthralled him was undocumented. So, he spent several years in the role of music historian, finally putting the music on record for the world to hear. The podcast also delves into Abe’s faith journey, which is intermixed with his efforts to record the unrecorded. “It’s about eight hours and it’s all in there,” he says. The crux of the show is best explained by Abe in his podcast forward. “I want to be around art that is authentic, real and moving. This is what I’ve found that, to me, is the most authentic, real and moving art I’ve ever experienced,” he says. The clip was taken from a recorded phone call; characteristically, Abe was on the road at the time.
While the Renaissance man is no stranger to road life, he is deeply rooted in Mobile and sees to it that his family is as well. The Partridges lived on a large farm in Theodore for a time, and now rent a home in West Mobile so that their three children can attend schools within the Mobile County Public School System.
Though he is oftentimes on the road, Abe’s music maintains an Alabama centricity. Along with releasing music under Baldwin Co. Public Records, he has also cut songs with Skate Mountain Records in Daphne. When Abe is in town for however short a time, he can sometimes be found listed in the musical lineup at Callaghan’s, Flora-Bama and the Alabama Music Box. He is a familiar face at the Alabama Contemporary Art Center, having hosted his exhibition “With Signs Following” across four months earlier this year. He also held his album release show for “Love in the Dark” at the art center this past April. “My hometown shows are always the most special for me,” says Abe. “It’s almost like a family reunion to get to see the folks who have been with me since the very beginning of my career when things were exclusively local. Mobile is the place I live and raise my family.” The world traveler sticks close to his roots, not forgetting the place that started his career. “The small but passionate arts community in this town embraced me early on and has helped propel me forward,” he says. “For them, I am grateful.”
Left to right Blue crabs are sprinkled with seasoning and then steamed. Live blue crabs wait to be steamed. Wooden mallets and paring knives make it easy to enjoy a Maryland steamed crab feast.
STEAMED VS. BOILED — THE HEATED DEBATE
Down here, there really is no debate: South Alabamians prefer to boil their blue crabs. Cathy Partridge says she knows she might not convince locals that steaming is better, but she has some good evidence, and Abe is a convert.
Cathy insists that steamed crabs are easier to pick, and the meat holds together better. “If you ever see a nice big jumbo lump in a restaurant, that crab was steamed. Boiling won’t give you that.” She pulls a paddle fin from a body with a perfect lump attached as proof. Steam is considerably hotter than boiling water as well, so she says the crabs cook quicker and don’t get waterlogged.
FIND YOUR CRABS
When Abe worked a job in Pascagoula early in their marriage, he would bait traps in a little slough in Bayou la Batre and stop on the way home from work each day to check his catch. Cathy steamed the crabs for the whole family for dinner. These days she calls her local seafood guy at Simply Seafood and asks if he has any fresh. “Often I have to reserve them ahead of time, and I only buy the males. It’s a throwback to my time in Maryland,” she explains. The law there requires all females to be released to protect the population, but Maryland crab connoisseurs swear the males also taste better.
Cathy uses J.O. Brand #2 seasoning on her crabs, a Maryland favorite. Since it’s not sold in Alabama, she buys 50-pound boxes when back home visiting family. “It’s not spicy like Cajun seasoning, but it’s full of flavor.”
Cathy’s Steamed Crabs
Apple cider vinegar or beer
12 medium live blue crabs
2 cups J.O. Spice #2 crab seasoning*
1. Place equal parts water and apple cider vinegar in a large steaming pot over a propane burner. The pot should be equipped with a steaming trivet that is about two inches above the bottom. The water and apple cider vinegar should come to just below the trivet.
2. Bring the water and vinegar to a rolling boil, placing the lid on the pot to speed up the process.
3. Once liquid has reached a boil, use long tongs to pick up the crabs.
4. Place the crabs in the pot in one even layer and cover generously with J.O. Spice #2 crab seasoning.
5. Repeat until all crabs are in the pot and covered with spice.
6. Place the lid on the pot and steam crabs until outer shells and claws have turned a vivid bright orange. They are not entirely cooked until the whole shell is bright orange.
7. Once they are fully cooked, turn off the burner and, using tongs, remove them from the pot to a large serving platter. Serve on a table with a plastic cloth for easy cleanup, and provide wooden mallets and small knives to help extract the meat.
8. To eat, Cathy likes to dip the crabmeat in apple cider vinegar and then in more seasoning for a real Maryland experience!
*J.O. Spice #2 can be purchased on Amazon.com.