Musician with missing fingers adopts son who has same birth defect

Grammy-nominated bluegrass musician Barry Abernathy wasn’t planning to adopt in his 50s. Then he met Tyler and Zoey.
The Abernathy family after adopting two young kids, Tyler and Zoey.
The Abernathy family after adopting two young kids, Tyler and Zoey.Abernathy Family
/ Source: TODAY

Barry Abernathy’s life has always had a way of taking unexpected turns.

As a young child, he loved music and would stage concerts on his porch for his family and neighbors. He would put on a show, singing and beating on his guitar. But Abernathy couldn’t actually play chords because he had a birth defect — he was born with only a thumb and part of his pointer finger on his left hand.

“As time went on, I kind of forgot about (playing guitar) because I figured I couldn’t do it,” he explained.

Years passed until, one day as a teen, he walked into a record store and spotted a bluegrass album with a picture of a banjo on it. His mother, feeling generous, bought it for him.

“I put it on the turntable and listened to it and when I heard it ... I was on fire,” Abernathy, who lives in Ellijay, Georgia, recalled.

When he expressed interest in learning to play the banjo, his mother warned him — not to discourage him, he says, but to prevent him from being disappointed — that it would be hard with just two fingers.

His mother also challenged him.

“If you learn a tune all the way through and can play it without messing up,” she told him, “I’ll buy you a banjo.”

Like any typical teen, Abernathy took the challenge. He discovered the popular three-finger style of playing the instrument, and the rest is history. His successful musical career has allowed him to play with his heroes and tour with his band, Appalachian Road Show. He's even been nominated for two Grammy awards.

Similar to his musical journey, Abernathy has had an unpredictable turn in his fatherhood journey.

He and his wife, Beverly, have two daughters, Chassady, 18, and Emma, 16.

In June of 2019, Chassady told him about a pair of siblings at the day care where she works. The children, Tyler and Zoey, had been removed from an unsafe home and put into the foster care system. Chassady was surprised to see that the little boy had the same birth defect as Abernathy.

Tyler and Zoey are pictured after their adoption into the Abernathy family became official on April 20, 2020.Abernathy Family

“She said, ‘The little boy, his hand is just like yours,’” Abernathy said.

A few days later, Abernathy had to drive from his home in Georgia to Nashville, Tennessee, for a performance. On his way out of town, he felt a strong urge to stop by and see the kids.

The moment he walked in the day care center’s door, he spotted Tyler.

“He literally thought because our hands were alike, that I was his dad,” Abernathy recalled with a chuckle. “He pats his little buddy on the head and said, ‘Hey look, that’s my dad!’”

Tyler, then 4, ran to Abernathy and jumped into his arms, hugging him.

“You’re my dad!” he told Abernathy.

“Do you need me to be?” Abernathy asked.

“You’re my dad,” Tyler replied.

Tyler goes fishing with his adoptive dad, Barry Abernathy.Abernathy Family

Later, as Abernathy drove the few hours to Nashville, he said he argued with God over the decision.

“I said, 'I’m 50 years old,'” he said. “I was like, I can’t raise another two kids.”

He called his wife and was surprised to learn she had also felt called to visit the children at the day care that day.

“She said, 'We’re gonna have to take these kids,'” Abernathy said. And by the time he reached Nashville, they had decided.

“I said, 'Lord, if you want us to do this, you need to make a way,'” he recalls. Two days later, the Abernathys discovered the children's foster family could no longer care for them and they were to become wards of the state.

Tyler and Zoey have been living with the Abernathys ever since. Their adoption was finalized earlier this week by video conference.

“Everybody that we knew wanted to be a part of it,” Abernathy told TODAY Parents. “We had like, 20 to 30 people on there.”

Tyler and Barry Abernathy practice playing music together.Abernathy Family

Both Tyler, 5, and Zoey, 6, are doing well in their new home. Tyler is learning to play guitar. And, in the days since she was adopted, Abernathy said, Zoey has had a change in her attitude.

“She knows that she’s secure now,” he explained. “It’s like when she got adopted, she changed.”

He knows things won’t always be easy for the two young kids after experiencing such trauma in their young lives, but he hopes his family can give them the kind of warm and loving home they deserve.

“Me and my wife, we’d never even considered (adopting). We thought we were done,” he explained. “But in a matter of days, we had two more kids. We just tried to follow what we thought was right.”

He said it felt as if fate had stepped in.

“I don’t see how anything like that could be a coincidence,” he said. “We just followed our heart on that, we felt like it was God and it was fate that put us together with these children...

“There’s no doubt it was meant to be.”

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