Charles Wesley Godwin’s debut album, ‘Seneca’, is traditional country music in a very literal sense: these songs are tales of the rural landscapes and working people of his West Virginian home. Musically and lyrically, the album is an incredibly well-realised sonic picture of the Appalachians, almost an immersive concept album that transports the listener to the region’s mountains, valleys, creeks, mills and mines. The hard-working people of these narratives are: “…the backbone of a nation,” as Godwin sings on ‘Here in Eden’. This is their story.
Like many of the songs, the opener, ‘(Windmill) Keep on Turning’, feels deeply personal and juxtaposes the landscape’s natural beauty with the closure of the local factory and man-made economic woes. It’s a compelling ‘biography’ of a place, full of details and engaging images, like the: “…pearl white wings…” of the windmill. As such, it serves as a suitable introduction to the songs and stories that follow. A driving guitar solo is the song’s fulcrum, combining effectively with the backing vocals. Next up is the album’s lead single, ‘Coal Country’; Godwin’s father was a coal miner and there is an authenticity to the reality of: “…closed up towns, forgotten dreams…”, which is, perhaps, far away from the rural idyll of West Virginia in the minds of many listeners. This is a supremely crafted song that builds into a lush, full sound with layers of instrumentation, elevated by a fiddle solo midway through. Indeed, flourishes of fiddle and pedal steel help to lift many of the songs on ‘Seneca’, giving the record a vintage country feel. ‘Hardwood Floors’ is a fast-paced, toe-tapping song with a strong bass line, whirling fiddle and a pounding beat for pounding feet to dance to, which is apt as the song is all about lovers dancing. Once again, the pedal steel and fiddle are essential elements, especially when the instruments suddenly fall away, making space for a hushed verse in the middle.
‘Seneca Creek’ and its narrative about the courtship of Godwin’s grandparents is the album’s centre-piece. This aching ballad is rich in personal detail, taking us through the decades from their first meeting in 1949, through the Korean War and hard times building a farming life along the Seneca, through to the sickness, nostalgia and heartache of the 1990s: “Take my hand Ruth my dear / I’ll take you back to any year / And now you lay on the hill up high / Right beneath the mountain sky.” Later on, the album closes with a stripped-back acoustic version, which emphasises the strength of the narrative and vocal.
The remaining songs all have much to offer, from the finger-clicking rhythm and romanticism of ‘Strawberry Queen’ to the classic-country tragic tale of ‘The Last Bite’. Throughout, Godwin delivers beautiful vocal melodies, especially on ‘Sorry for the Wait’ and ‘Pour it On’. Although the songs sometimes appear bleak, there’s pride and hope in the stories as Godwin sings in ‘Pour it On’: “I try to see the beauty in every bruise.”
Godwin found music and song writing late, having only started playing the guitar in 2012. However, despite this being his solo debut, there is such clear intent and vision, such musical and thematic coherence across the album as a whole, that it would be easy to imagine that Godwin is an experienced song-smith with a well-established career. Although specifically about his Appalachian homeland, the importance of place and the lives of hardworking people are ultimately universal themes that deserve a wide audience. Godwin is, perhaps: “Just a mountain boy with dreams,” as he sings on ‘Strawberry Queen’. However, with songs of such quality, this West Virginian voice can sing for us all.