Interview: Charles Wesley Godwin on 21st Century Appalachia

Credit: Harry Ilyer

How to build a career in folk americana away from Nashville.

Appalachia holds a special place in the development of 20th Century American music through the recordings that were made of Appalachian musicians in the 1920s and the subsequent influence of those artists on the development of country music, rock’n’roll and eventually americana. The other assumed characteristics of Appalachia in the public consciousness are of a very rural and beautiful landscape but with poverty and poorly educated and often inbred locals. This caricature was started in the 19th century when Eastern urban newspapers ran the ongoing story of the feud between two Appalachian families, the Hatfields and the McCoys, which sensationalised the issues and portrayed the local population as extremely violent. This storyline had nothing to do, of course, with the powerful logging and mining interests who were keen to modernise the exploitation of Appalachia’s natural resources, which at the time were in the hands of the local landowners. The 1972 film ‘Deliverance’ with its soundtrack maintained and magnified the wider public image of Appalachia. Charles Wesley Goodwin is an Appalachian musician who is maintaining its long history of music and he is doing this without the support of the Nashville music machine, preferring to work with a Pennsylvanian producer and studio owner, Al Torrence. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Charles Wesley Godwin over Zoom to discuss his new second album of folk tinged americana, ‘How The Mighty Fall’, what Appalachia is like in the 21st Century and how lockdown helped bring more balance to his life and helped him develop his songwriting from that on his debut album, ‘Seneca’. The son of a coal miner and schoolteacher, Godwin is proud of his Appalachian heritage filtered through his time at West Virginia University and studies in Estonia.

I hope you, your family and your friends have escaped the worst effects of the pandemic?

I’m good, a few days at home to catch up on what I can and a few nights rest, it has been full-on for the last few months with things opening up and all that. We knew some folks who sadly passed, but with all our family and friends, everybody is OK.

Tell me about working with Al Torrence and Music Garden Studios?

I first worked with Al Torrence in an earlier band and then on my debut album ‘Seneca’. Al is a graduate of the Berklee College of Music, and I am not what you would call a technical musician, and so Al helps me realise the music I can hear in my head with his production, arranging and instrumental skills. We work really well together because I know what I want, and Al helps me to achieve that. Al’s Music Garden Studio is not in a good part of New Brighton, Pennsylvania, and looks a bit of a dump from the outside but it has really good equipment and it is a joy to work there. Mind you, when we were working there in the winter we had to put blankets up around the door to try and keep the cold out and we were putting hot water down the toilet to stop the water from freezing, haha.

How is this record different from your debut ‘Seneca’?

We worked again with Al Torrence because of the great experience we had last time, so we wanted to keep the good experience going, but this time the songs were more developed when we went into the studio. The songs on ‘Seneca’ had a sense of place that was my home in Appalachia, but this time they are not so locally based so I’m hoping they will connect with people wherever they live.

Your recorded solo career spanned COVID, how did you deal with that?

It was really a blessing in disguise, though I know it was a lot worse for a lot of people. My wife, a college professor, and I had our first child in 2020 so the pandemic meant I had an unbelievable amount of quality with my son, and I could also help my wife. I was also able to spend more time with my songwriting which helped with the recording. We recorded the album in September 2020 and in April I went back on the road with a full schedule. Managing and delivering an independent release is hard work, and the need to get back on the road means I have been very busy.

Songwriters have very different ways that they approach their own craft, how do you approach your songwriting? Are you structured or do you simply wait for the muse to visit?

I’ve always taken note of how other songwriters tackle it and my own approach is similar to what Jason Isbell described as his approach, and is used by some others, where I regularly go to my notebook whether I have anything to write about or not. So I am very disciplined in my approach to my songwriting.

How easy is it working in a folk americana vein and not being based in Nashville?

From a personal perspective, I’m not sure I would like to work in a big city which is what Nashville is. I am very comfortable working with Al Torrence, so I’ve got no reason to change something that is working for me. We are able to get all the sounds I need with Al.

Appalachia is such an iconic concept, but how does the reality match with the various perceptions?

Things are tough for the people of Appalachia, there is no hiding that, but I’m not criticising my home because there are but plenty of really talented people here who are working towards a better future, and the internet is really helping with that. Also, the pandemic has given people the time to re-evaluate how there want to live their lives and a lot of folks are moving to a more rural lifestyle. Where I live is really beautiful and my dog has a doggy park right outside our door.

How is bluegrass viewed in Appalachia?

It is truly just part of the culture. One thing people don’t always appreciate about Appalachia is that people like live bluegrass even if they don’t listen to bluegrass records. Live bluegrass is very popular, but we have a low population so individual audiences can be small for any local acts. When I was in college, I was in a bluegrass band and when we played at the weekend, we had all ages coming to see us and everyone had a great time, and got on really well.

What is the current Appalachian music scene like?

As with a lot of areas, there is a variety of music played locally. However, because of Appalachia’s low population, it can be quite hard for local musicians to make a living from music. Mind you there is such a deep tradition of music around here that most people play music. It always amazes me when we have or go to dinner parties, and after the meal when the guitars come out, our friends are better guitar players than I am, and I’m the only professional musician in the room, haha.

Who are your go-to influences?

On this album, it was particularly Chris Knight and Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen, to me, is like going back to school he is that good as a songwriter and performer, and Chris Knight was influenced by the best, Steve Earle and John Prine.

How are you dealing with the challenges of music streaming?

I know quite a lot of musicians from the 1990s have seen their income reduce because of the impact of streaming, but I’ve known no different during my career and as I’m making money I’m OK with it. As an independent musician streaming has been helpful in getting my music out, and it is great for accessing music so there are a lot of benefits to it.

How do you judge your own success, what is important to you?

That is a hard question. I love what I do and I would still be writing these songs even if I wasn’t doing it for a living. I think what I’m looking to do is improve steadily and have realistic career expectations.

Who is in your road band and how did they cope with lockdown?

I never had a permanent road band pre-pandemic so that wasn’t a problem during the lockdown. I am going out now so everything is OK from my point of view but I know it has been tough not only for fellow musicians but also technicians and venues.

What are your plans for 2022?

Our daughter is due in 2022 and I will tour around that. I’m planning to come to the UK in 2023 with the whole family and make a trip out of it, particularly as a special treat for my wife.

We like to share new music with our readers, so currently what are your top three tracks, artists or albums on your playlist?

I am a bit obsessive about the music I’m listening to at any one point in time and I tend just to listen to an album at a time if I am really into it. At the moment I’m obsessing about James McMurtry’s ‘The Horses and the Hounds’, which is just so good. it is amazing someone can release an album this good so late in his career.

Is there anything you want to say to Americana UK readers?

Just remember I have a new album out ‘How The Mighty Fall’ and please give it a listen if you think you may like it, and I will hopefully see you all in 2023.

Charles Wesley Godwin’s ‘How The Might Fall’ is out now as an independent release.

About Martin Johnson 359 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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