Charles Wesley Godwin is beaming.
He’s just released something frankly epic in the shape of his 19-track, third studio album Family Ties. Every record he’s made is imbued with a sense of his home state, West Virginia, and allows his influences – from Springsteen to Kristofferson – to seep into the songs. His longtime band, the Allegheny High, make his vision happen live, but when he’s in the midst of creating new material he’s very much on his own.
Luckily, he says, it was a great writing year. “Every song felt like it needed to be on there – and I’m really proud of it.” Once he had his subject – family – it just flowed, starting in February 2022.
“I knew what the concept of the album was going to be and had a good idea of when I would record even before I had a lot of the songs done. I just knew that I’d get it done, and I was having a great time writing it. It was one of the most enjoyable work experiences of my life, figuring all that out, writing and then recording it. It ended up being the most fun I’ve ever had in the studio too – we got to record in a beautiful place, Echo Mountain in Asheville, North Carolina, and felt right at home. I had two weeks, which is more time than I’d ever had before to record. It was just a great experience top to bottom.”
One of the things that makes this album stand out is the atmosphere he builds, notably in songs like ‘The Flood’. “Yeah, I wanted it to sound cinematic”, he says. “It’s a story and I wanted somebody to be able to picture themselves where it’s taking place. I think the sonics can either help it or hurt it. We’re trying to help those stories live and breathe in a more real way, when your ears are taking it in.”
You can hear the influence of Springsteen’s album Nebraska – from the way Godwin recorded his demos on a Tascam 4-track, to the song ‘10-38’ – and he says it’s no accident. “That’s meant to go with ‘State Trooper’, with ‘10-38’ told from the perspective of the state trooper. They come together at a traffic stop at the end, and that’s meant to be the other half of that story. I love Nebraska and admire Springsteen’s writing so much, so I felt it’d be cool to try to write the other half to that story.”
To mark the release of Family Ties, Charles Wesley Godwin sat down with Holler to talk through some of the pivotal moments in his life that helped shape who he is as an artist, performer and person alike.
I didn’t play or sing growing up; I just assumed I couldn’t. I was also a very casual listener to music, it was just whatever was thrown in front of me. I didn’t grow up in a musical household. But when I was 20 years old in college, I watched the 2011 Grammys. The Avett Brothers played, then Mumford and Sons, then Bob Dylan… then they all played together. I remember specifically watching the Avett Brothers playing ‘I and Love and You’ and I thought it was incredible.
It made me think it’d be something cool to do myself. I was at this weird point in my life where I wasn’t playing sports anymore so I had more free time than ever. I needed to find some productive hobbies, so I was like: I’ll pick up a guitar, that’d be something I can do in the evenings and spend less time watching TV. So that’s what inspired me to even pick up a guitar in the first place.
My first dream was to play American football for the West Virginia Mountaineers. It was the be all and end all in my life. I didn’t even care what came after that. But I was unable to make it happen - I couldn’t make the team, and though I kept trying for a few years I had to accept the fact that the dream was dead.
I was an outside linebacker and a lot bigger back in the day than I am now… my 20-year-old self would break my 31-year-old self in half over his knee. Still, at the time it was devastating. It hurt so bad to fail on this thing that I cared about so much, but it was also a great lesson to learn that it’s okay to go for what you want in life. It made me realise that you come out on the other end of failure and you’re okay, you’re fine. Your family and friends still love you. It’s alright to go for it.
When I began to pursue music professionally a few years later, I had that fear out of the way. I’d already failed once before.
My North Stars for live performers are the Avett Brothers and Bruce Springsteen, I watch those guys play live religiously. I watch the Springsteen 1979 No Nukes concert on a regular basis, and I soak up the energy and how good they are performing and getting the crowd involved. They bring the energy up in a room in a way that very few people can. It’s really aided us and our path to getting to where we are with how good our live show is. I credit all that to the Avetts and Springsteen.
I was profoundly affected by the death of my grandfather, but the birth of my son and becoming a father changed me in exponential ways. I’ve had to learn to manage my time better, and becoming a parent has honestly made me more productive, even though I have less time than before. The birth of my firstborn, Gabriel, was a truly a before-and-after moment in my life. My wife and I both loved the name Gabriel – the guardian angel – and thought it’d be a great name for our firstborn child.
I’m a homebody, I love my home, but unfortunately with the way my life works I have to be gone from it so much. I feel like I’m shaped by where I grew up in West Virginia. So much of the character and the look on life that I have is shaped by the region, the people I grew up with and my family. So it does add a unique flavour to my music. There’s been a long line of West Virginians that have paved the path before me. Hopefully I can be a small part going into the future that helps other kids in West Virginia believe they can chase and accomplish their dreams.
Then there’s the song ‘Take Me Home Country Roads’ specifically. That’s like the national anthem of West Virginia. We sing it after every sporting event when we’re victorious. John’s not with us anymore to play it, but it’s become a huge thing at the end of my shows. Maybe it’ll turn into a thing where I can help carry that torch to the next generation. There’s always going to be John Denver’s recording of ‘Country Roads’, but we’re not able to have that live experience with him. So maybe I can help fill that hole a little bit. I’ve been fortunate enough to be given the support from Zachary Denver and the manager of their estate – they’re behind it, support it and are doing everything they can to help as well. So I’m very grateful for that.
I’ve got a lot of guitars, and I love them all very much. But the first guitar I bought is a Martin D-18. It’s the one I took to Europe with me, and played my first gig with. I started my whole career with that D-18. I’m never gonna let go of it. It will always hold a special place in my heart. I have guitars that were played for hundreds of shows in consecutive years, the D-28 that I recorded this whole album on, and certain guitars I wrote certain songs on. So they all have special meanings to me – I plan on keeping them all and passing them down to my kids and grandkids someday.
I’m still working on my own guitar playing. Even though it’s a little over 10 years since I started, I still feel very much like a beginner on the instrument. I really enjoy Darrell Scott’s guitar playing and the way he’s able to pull the melody out of his songs while still keeping rhythm and playing solo acoustic. I’m just totally in love with the way that he plays.
I also love Seth Avett. Again, it's the way he pulls out the melody with his guitar playing. It’s not super complicated and I understand I’m never gonna have the chops of the best players in the world. But I think Seth Avett and Darrell Scott are guys I can aspire to be like someday, where maybe I can pull some of the best parts of the melodies out of my songs and still make them sound really good in a beautiful way. So even really good guitar players could hear me and say, that’s really nice. Obviously, it’s not the most complicated thing in the world, but if it sounds really good, that’s ultimately what matters.
Family Ties is out now via Big Loud Records. For more on Charles Wesley Godwin, see below: