Interview: Philip Bowen talks about the Kanawha River and the vampire in Appalachia

Credit: Jordon Beck

Appalachia is still a fertile breeding ground for new roots artists.

Appalachia has exerted a massive influence on American roots music over the years, being the region where the original Scottish and Irish settler’s music from Scotland and Ireland mixed with the blues of the black population to create something that is at once familiar but also different. The music was homemade, and played by friends and family rather than by professional musicians. This process is still happening today as the latest musician to emerge from the area, Philip Bowen, uses his Appalachian experiences as inspiration for his album ‘Old Kanawha’. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Philip Bowen over Zoom in Detroit to discuss the stories behind ‘Old Kanawha’ and why he thinks there is a vampire in Appalachia. He explains how when he was growing up music was everywhere and at every gathering, including birthdays, weddings and funerals, guests would bring their instruments. He also hints at the challenges posed by Appalachia as he explains that his grandfather’s brother died of black lung, and how serious the current opioid crisis is in Appalachia. As far as his own musical influences are concerned he lists James Taylor, The Milk Carton Kids, Watchhouse, John Prine, and Jason Isbell as modern-day inspirational acts who are also very good storytellers. He also explains how social media has played a big part in his success to date. Finally, he explains that the Scottish influence in Appalachia is still strong as he names Scotland’s Frightened Rabbit as his favourite band of all time.

How are you and where are you?

I’m fine, here in my home studio with my pennants behind me. I used to only have one but fans and others have sent me more over the last few years so I’ve got quite a few now.

Is there a commercial renaissance going on in Appalachia with 49 Winchester, Charles Wesley Godwin, the Davisson Brothers and now yourself, and I apologise if I’ve missed anybody out?

As they say around here, there must be something in the water, but I don’t really know. There are lots of great songwriters in the area, and I’ve met some of those that you’ve mentioned. Obviously, I’ve worked with Charles on one of the songs on ‘Old Kanawha’ and I’ve met him a few times. I think it is probably due to the fact that there is such a rich tradition of music in Appalachia. As a child, every gathering you go to, whether it is a birthday party, a wedding or a funeral, there is always music. Everybody just brings their instruments, it is how you grow up and I think that contributes to this tradition of writing and performing, it is just part of your life from an early age.

You haven’t yet moved to Nashville, why is that?

Home is home. I’ve obviously had my share of trips to Nashville, and I’m starting to tour more and more, I’m going to Kentucky this weekend and I have dates in Virginia, and I’ve got some West Coast dates later in the year. I’ve never felt that pull to move to Nashville even though I enjoy going and performing there, but I prefer living at home. It helps me write better and all that kind of thing.

You are just about to release your debut album but you’ve got one million followers on social media, been interviewed by Rolling Stone, and are said to be a singer-songwriter to watch. How have you tackled your career to date?

For me, as an independent artist, I was just trying to build an organic following that cared about what I was doing and the songs I was writing, and I play the fiddle as well, obviously. Right before the COVID thing started I made a commitment to myself to get the music thing going again, and when the world shut down I just started doing things online to keep the momentum going, and it honestly changed my life. I would do these live concerts two or three times a week from my home studio and it just grew bit by bit, and it then became a lot. That helped me fund the recording and releasing of music, and it does mean a lot to me to be able to release a whole body of work like an album, for sure.

I know ‘Old Kanawha’ is about a place, but what does it mean to you?

That word to me is my family history and my home. At the house I grew up in in West Virginia you could go out the back door and within ten steps you were at the river, the Kanawha River. So this album for me was about connecting with my roots and sharing a bit about myself and the country I grew up in with everybody else and also share the stories that I tell. There is a song on the album, ‘Old Kanawha’, which I did with Charles Wesley Godwin, and it just means everything to me. So, I just felt that was such an appropriate title to introduce me as a songwriter and it is what the album is all about.

How did you record ‘Old Kanawha’?

I didn’t record it at a studio in Nashville, it was important to me to do as much as possible in my home state. So I recorded it in West Virginia with the exception of two songs, one of which was recorded in my home studio and the other was recorded in New York, and every player on the album, except for one, is from Appalachia. So, we recorded this album in Appalachia with talent from the region and it was important for me to do that with the first one because I know what it means to the area to have a product from there, so I did all the work in my home state of West Virginia.

How easy was it to record, debut albums can be quite challenging?

I feel I now have an appreciation of the amount of work required. Doing one song and doing a single is something entirely different, and doing this with thirteen songs and getting it all done with real people in the room with you, I definitely have an appreciation of the quantity of work it takes to do something like that. Everything from the production kind of things to the fact there is a demand for vinyl, a CD and all those kinds of things. I’ve learnt a great deal through the process, and it is definitely exhausting in a good way, You definitely feel you’ve accomplished something for sure.

I have to ask, are there really any vampires in Appalachia?

That’s a great question. For me, the song is about two things, I sing a lot about the great parts of the region I grew up in and this song is about the struggles of that area and some of the problems we experience. The first verse is about what they call the extraction economy, and West Virginia is a very resource-rich state, specifically coal. For a long time, these companies would come in and take the resources and leave, and the money would leave as well, and I don’t know anybody in my home town who doesn’t have at least one connection to the coal mines. My grandfather’s brother passed away from black lung so it is a very impactful part of my family history. The second verse of the song speaks to the opioid crisis, which is particularly bad in Appalachia. Again, I don’t know any member of my family or friend who doesn’t know someone who has either lost their life or who struggled and changed their life through this opioid epidemic. It was important for me to speak about those two things, and fairly recently I was home for a funeral for somebody I’d known for a long time, and on the way home I was struck by the imagery of a vampire sucking the blood out of something. That may be a long answer, but that is how I got to that imagery, “There’s a vampire in Appalachia and we are running out of blood.”, speaking to those two things specifically.

How easy is songwriting for you, and what sort of songwriter are you?

Some songs come faster than others, and some songs you agonise over for months until you think you’ve got it to where it ought to be. For me, my process is I try to write very often, if not every day, and so one of the best pieces of advice I got early on was to treat songwriting almost like a job where if you’re not feeling great you try and write something, and if you’re feeling great you try and write something, you feel inspired or you don’t feel inspired just write to see what comes out. Like most songwriters, I have hundreds of voice memos on my phone with little clips of ideas and thoughts. Mine typically start out with a single idea and a lot of jibberish, I will pick up the guitar and sing gibberish but then the idea will come together for me. Sometimes it can take me a long time to get from point A to point B.

How old are the songs you recorded?

‘Old Kanawha’ was one of the first full songs I wrote front to back when I started getting back into that, so I probably finished that song at the start of 2020, because I was feeling very homesick and stuck at home because of the pandemic. Some are newer, ‘Vampire in Appalachia’ is less than a year old. I kind of run the spectrum there, the oldest songs are from 2019 and 2020, and the newest song ‘A Murder’, I wrote the day before I went to the studio to finish the album. It is a companion song to ‘Vampire in Appalachia’ and I’d had it in the works forever, and I wasn’t feeling confident it was finished and literally the night before I was due back in the studio I had it. So there is one that is very fresh on there, for sure.

Did the other players bring any changes to your sons, or did they just play your arrangements?

They brought a lot to the album, and one of my favourite things to do with great players like that is to let them do what they do best. The way I typically work is I will send everyone a demo, and when we get to the studio I will sing the song acoustically with a guitar. I will tell them to feel certain moments like this is a big moment or we are gonna get a little quieter here, and then I love seeing what people can come up with. There is a great bluegrass guitarist on the album called Jake Eddy, and he just came up with the little intro, that little lick,  for ‘Sweet, Honey’ right in the room just before we were about to record. We had several moments like that where I just watched these guys do their magic, and we tried to grow it together. I had great fun watching these fantastic players just do their thing.

How nervous are you about the reception the record will get?

My wife teases me that it is a little bit like having your first kid, I have three young kids but with the first one you are such a nervous wreck and you are checking them every two seconds, and I feel I was like that at the beginning, I just wanted to get it done and have it just right. Now I’ve had time to just let it sit and wait I’m just ready to let it fly. I’ve been releasing some singles. I’m a little bit nervous but I’m really proud of the work I’ve done, and I feel the reception to the singles has been very positive so far, more than I could ever have hoped for. I’m just hoping the songs find who they need to find, and that people enjoy listening to them.

Who are your own musical heroes?

I was fortunate enough to grow up in a household where we had lots of different eclectic music. My dad really liked a lot of old country, classic country, and my mom liked everything from the Bee Gees to musicals, and stuff like that. I was always inspired by great songwriters, and James Taylor is still one of my favourite songwriters because of the way he tells stories and people like John Prine. I really love that storytelling style that is really rich and vivid, and obviously, Bob Dylan is great at telling stories. Currently, I’m inspired by Jason Isbell, and I’ve always loved his writing, I love The Milk Carton Kids, Watchhouse. There are almost too many to name. I love music, and I’m super passionate about it, my favourite thing about music is the great storytelling, and those are some of the great storytellers I love.

Is it too early to talk about a visit to the UK and Europe?

You know, I don’t think it is. I’ve been pleasantly surprised that outside of the US and Canada, my biggest listener base is the UK. I’ve had fans from the UK reaching out to me, and in fact, there was a cat who worked in the Royal Air Force and he reached out to my team to see if he could get some CDs over there, so we loaded him up a special package. He’s a helicopter pilot, and he wanted one for himself and one for his mate so we sent him some CDs early. I don’t know whether he is listening to me when he’s flying, but I would love to come over and see everybody over there.

What plans do you have for the US?

The fall is really beginning to ramp up, I have a couple of weekend dates now and in the fall I’m doing three cities with a great artist, Wyatt Flores, Chicago, Milwaukee and a city in Indiana, and I’ve got a couple of shows out in Vancouver in September. There are a couple of dates with Josiah and the Bonnervilles, who are with me on ‘Vampire in Appalachia’, in Nashville in November that are already sold out. I’m hoping to add a lot more to the docket. These will be solo shows with my guitar and fiddle, though I have done dates with a full band. I’m working on the band part, but that is a whole other can of worms. So, right now I’m just getting out and doing my road warrior thing.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

There is a new song that I just came across the other day. I know this artist but I hadn’t heard this song, it’s ‘Sticks and Stones’ by Lukas Nelson, and it is really unique. I love the way he sings. I’m going to give a shoutout to another West Virginia artist who I’ve not had the chance to work with yet. Her name is Sierra Ferrell and she has a song ‘The West Virginia Waltz’ and I’ve been listening to that song all summer long, I love that song. I saw Madison Cunningham a few years ago in concert, and I’ve been listening to her ever since, she is in the indie rock americana vein. One of my favourite songs of hers is ‘To Another Land’, but I love everything she does. Those might be my three right now, I think. I’ve seen Madison twice, and she just shreds on that guitar, she is such a talented player as well as a singer and writer.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?

First of all, I would just like to say a massive thank you because as I said, I’ve received support emails and encouragement from fans from all over the UK and the EU, and I’m hoping to come visit you soon. In fact, one of my favourite bands of all time which I’ve been listening to since college is Frightened Rabbit. They are a Scottish rock band and I love those guys and I would love to do Scotland and the rest of the UK.  I’m going to try my best to get over there and see you guys as soon as I can.

Philip Bowen’s ‘Old Kanawha’ is out now on Philip Bowen Music.

About Martin Johnson 402 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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