Every five albums I plan to add in a bonus album. These will likely be albums that may never make it on a 100 Greatest Albums list (or at least this kind of list). Still, they are albums that mean something to me and my exploration of faith and music. First up is Charles Wesley Godwin’s debut album, Seneca.
This album means quite a bit to me because it was my first taste of the new wave of independent country artists that are emerging. I was actually looking for Spotify tracks of Charles Wesley (the Methodist hymn writer) to assign in my theology and history courses on Methodism. I didn’t find a lot, but then this guy appeared. I was drawn to his West Virginia Appalachian voice, his songs about mountain rural life, and his way of telling stories – his own and others.
He opened the flood gates for me. From discovering his music, I found Grady Smith – the country music commentator, and he led me to Gabe Lee, Tyler Childers, Orville Peck, and so many others. From there, I also stumbled into Trixie Mattel, Tessy Lou Williams, and so many others. It’s been nearly three years since I discovered Godwin. I missed one concert because of my parents’ health, but was able to catch one Facebook Live Concert. I’ve since seen him concert twice, and am already looking at tickets in February.
He’s released a second album, How the Mighty Fall, since then, but this album was my first. It offers up so many songs about rural life that neither sink totally into despair nor idealism. “(Windmill) Keep on Turning” speaks to the deindustrialization of Appalachia from the late 90’s until now. It talks about the disruption of life since the cabinet factory shut down. That the singer has to sell his craft (making furniture) on the roadside for the half the price just to get by. Even in this struggle, he counts himself lucky, as he didn’t get pulled into the undertow of the opioid and methamphetamine surge that overtook so many of the people in rural and small town America. He ends the song, however, on a hopeful note, reminding us that these “hills are pretty damn nice.” He lifts up the plentiful wildlife, the relationships, and the overall beauty.
The album continues into “Coal Country,” with opening stanza:
I’m going down to Charleston
Through the shadow of the mountain this road winds
Through closed-up towns, forgotten dreams, and welcome signs
Fading far behind
The song paints the picture of beauty and loss. “Coal Country” reminds the listener of the history of coal in the United States, how it supported so many families and supported the fight against the Nazis. Yet, as coal faded away, it took with it the incomes and identities of so may Appalachian folk. The song suggests that they traded company store tokens for government stamps and addiction.
Now, not all the songs are about rural despair and hauntedness, although we know that’s my main jam. Several are songs of love, relationships growing, and relationships changing. “Sorry for the Wait” is the story of how a man, married young, dies as he’s working in the mines trying to support his wife. It is a song to comfort those who go grieve those lost in the mines or at work in general.
But the two songs that speak to me the most, especially in my most recent listen through, are “Pour it On” and “Here in Eden.” They offer us a couple images of how to endure life in the midst of socio-economic turmoil. The second verse sings…
I try to see the beauty in every bruise
I’ve been huntin’ these peaks and valleys for the spooky muse
It’s a gift unwrapped by all is the weight of time
I can never go back and change this life that’s mine
The singer has chosen to look at life as one of hope, joy, and beauty. While it may be a hard life, it is one that he is going to endure and seize the moments reprieve and soak up every moment of them. He says just pour on the turmoil, because he can handle it because he is full life.
Then there’s “Here in Eden.” A song that points to reality of not just making do on known land and see, but thriving in it. He has the feeling that times may continue to ebb and flow, but he is going to dig himself in where he is and build a life worth living. He encourages those who are worried to make choices, roll up their sleeves, and do what needs to be done.
There’s not enough space here to talk about all the other tracks, but I encourage you to listen.
Now to reflect on the value of this for ministry. I think this album balances the realities of decline with the still present hope and opportunity that can be found, as I often say, just bubbling over the surface. The thing, the hope is not easily recognize amid the pain. “Keep on Turning” urges people to dig into world they live in and find the beauty even if times are hard.
“Coal Country” is the most real in naming the way the rest of the country has treated Appalachia, and it speaks to the reality that the decline in coal without other investment in the region has led to a consistently economically depressed area. It’s a call to remind people that they do get to call out the injustices in their world, even if they are still happy to live where they do and live lives they choose. But beyond these, this album tells us to find find joy in place. It calls on us to build the future we want to see, where we want to build it. It is, perhaps, a call to build our own Eden and find our own joy.
As the church, we can be the educator and partners in rekindling this hope and building a life wherever we choose. It is a life inspired by a divine hope that assures us that a future is possible. This means allowing for a confessing of the realities of life, but helping people to not dwell in it. And instead, helping them to find the hope below it. It also means, helping them to tell their stories so that we can use them as means of cultivating the hope.
Finally, it means acknowledging and holding accountable the governments and corporations that have caused this pain. It means doing so in ways that are not vindictive, but that seek hope for the people there, as they continue to discover ways to allow them to thrive.
As always, I’ll add my favorites to the playlist.