Ain’t it funny how plans slip away? All week, my intent for today was to give my thoughts on a legendary singer’s new release, which I listened to a few times yesterday morn. It’s the kind of album where quality matters less than the emotional connection made long ago between artist and fan, somewhat akin to catching up with an old friend, and the kind of thing that I enjoy writing about. Then I gave a spin to How the Mighty Fall by Charles Wesley Godwin, a country-folk performer from West Virginia.
And then I played it again and again for the bulk of the day.
He’s not a good ol’ boy singing ‘bout beer, flatbeds, hunting and fishing, but a Coal Country poet who digs up hardscrabble truths through character-driven story-songs. Some, such as the opening “Over Yonder,” are accented by country music conventions, including steel guitar and fiddle; others, such as “Bones,” feature charred moods and fiery guitars; and all contain echoes of singers and songwriters who came before, from George Jones to Woody Guthrie to Kate Wolf to Hank Williams Jr., not to mention Steve Earle and Jason Isbell.
His website calls his sound “Appalachian Americana” but, really, that doesn’t do it justice. It’s the past, present and future of American music rolled into one. These are the kind of songs that A.P. Carter might’ve found while making his rounds in the hill country if he was making them now and not in the 1930s.
“Gas Well” may well be the album’s masterpiece. It’s an American trilogy (of sorts) in which Godwin laments that “empty pockets make sinners out of bona fide saints” while telling the tale of a country boy who takes drastic measures to survive. It’s part outlaw, part mariachi, part Appalachian folk—and all parts enthralling.
Thematically speaking, How the Mighty Fall is somewhat akin to John Mellencamp’s Scarecrow and Lonesome Jubilee albums. The realities faced by Midwestern farmers got short shrift in the press back in the ‘80s, as farm foreclosures weren’t top of the fold in most newspapers. Same goes, these days, for rural communities everywhere, which are facing an array of seismic economic and cultural shifts; they’re more than just epicenters of the opioid crisis, which is how they’re typically portrayed. That’s not to say Godwin delves into the intricacies of all that—but he does place a face and gives a voice to the folks that live in them. It’s a great album.