West Virginia looms large under the lens of Charles Wesley Godwin. Even though his last album – the much-celebrated Seneca – was written in Ohio, it was still his West Virginian homeland that endlessly occupied his thoughts and provided the backdrop for the album’s wide cinematic vision.
The twelve-song album - with songs like ‘Coal Country’ and ‘Hardwood Floors’ - was an Appalachian Americana masterpiece that brought the rugged backdrop of his upbringing, along with the characters that live there, poetically to life in a musical love letter to his homeland.
When the pandemic brought his touring to a halt two years ago, he set his sights on How the Mighty Fall, creating the record during a period that also witnessed the birth of his son and the migration of his growing family back to the region he was raised in.
The album was written after he had left Ohio and returned to West Virginia, but despite being back in the landscape of Seneca, the characters in the songs were found roaming further afield this time. How the Mighty Fall zooms out – tentatively at first - from his West Virginia homescape to set its focus on wider themes of hardship and resilience, love, loss and distance.
“It’s been a few years now since I’ve felt an urge to roam / I’ve been living up the holler watching my children grow”, he sings in ‘Lyin’ Low’, one of a pair of songs that open the album that find him peaking out over the top of the mountain to see what’s happening in the world beyond.
For every sweetly plaintive folk song like ‘Cranes Of Potter’ there is a blasting cut of country rock, like the countrified stomp of ‘Blood Feud’ or the charging heartland energy of songs like ‘Strong’ and ‘Bones’. He even summons up a ghostly Muscle Shoals house band on the epic mid-album opus ‘Gas Well’, a song which alone puts him up there with Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson and Tyler Childers as being one of the finest songwriters in country and Americana right now.
“I try to write with a sense of place,” he explains. “Up until now, that setting has always been my home, but I don’t think this new album is as locally-focused as my previous release. I hope these songs will connect with people wherever they live.”
Charles Wesley Godwin took time out to talk to Holler about how the album came together and how his life has changed in the last two years.
Where are you from and how has that influenced your music?
I’m from West Virginia and growing up there has influenced me in every way you could imagine. You can hear this in my songs, as it’s the setting where the majority of them take place. I moved away for a while, but I am living back in West Virginia now with my wife and children. I’m inspired by it just about every day I walk out my door.
What did you listen to growing up?
Some of my earliest memories are of me sitting in the back of my dad’s old car on our way to get our hair cut listening to oldies radio. A lot of that was the Beatles, CCR, Simon & Garfunkel, Janis Joplin and basically all of the Top 40 stuff from the 60s and early 70s.
As I got older, I just kind of listened to what my friends listened to. I never really considered myself very musical until I picked up a guitar around 20. I had been cut from auditions for the West Virginia University football team, so I started playing guitar in my spare time. That led me to singing and playing bluegrass and traditional country music.
What was it like moving back to West Virginia after living in the Midwest? What did your time away teach you?
I love my home in Morgantown, West Virginia. People have a way-off view from the outside of what we’re all about, what our priorities are and how smart we are. My wife and I found a beautiful place. It’s a lot of work but I love spending my time working on the property and I think it’ll be a great spot to raise a family. I can’t really say that my time living away taught me much. I’ve travelled a lot in my life up to this point. We did meet a fantastic group of friends that we’ll have for a lifetime.
How was it writing this latest album with a new born at home? What impact did that have on your creativity?
You know, I worried about that a good bit leading up to his birth and then once he was born that all figured itself out. I’d sneak away to the notebook while everyone was asleep and get the work done. I enjoyed working on these songs so much and I'll always look back fondly on those early mornings tinkering away while my family was asleep upstairs.
Why is it important for you to keep the traditions surrounding Appalachian music alive?
It’s very important to me that my music sounds like me and where I’m from. I believe it does in many ways. My family comes from the humble beginnings of working the West Virginia land and being taught what really matters in life, from an early age. My father was a coal miner and my mother was a schoolteacher. I grew up hunting, fishing, and playing sports, living a pretty traditional homespun life.
But I want the songs to sound unique. I don’t want to copy what other folks are doing or have done. Someone who is a die-hard traditionalist might think otherwise but that’s ok. They have every right. They can write ’em and sing them however they like, same as I do.
What was your favourite song to write on How the Mighty Fall?
It’s really hard to narrow something like that down. The most unexpected song on the album was ‘Cranes of Potter’. I never could have foreseen writing that story and that song until it almost fell into my lap from the world. It's kind of an interesting story with how it came to be...
A few years ago, I was headed to the studio, where I record and rehearse with my band. I think this was for rehearsal for Mountain Stage. I'm driving in Potter township, in Pennsylvania, and I'm just about to get to the higher river when I see this huge skyline and hundreds of cranes to my left, and I've never seen anything like it, it was a profound sight.
So when I got to the studio, I asked my guys what was going on over there by the river. They explained that someone was building this new cracker plant, which is where they break down natural gas and the different compounds to do different things, to make different things. Then they told me this really interesting story about when they were breaking ground for the plant, they found a body. So they called the police out and they processed the scene.
I think everybody might've been under the assumption that they just stumbled upon, maybe, a cold case body, you know? And the thing is, when they dated the bones, turns out the bones were 150 years old. Nobody had any idea, you know, who they belonged to or who it was. So, the next day I started, you know, fantasizing about the story behind that and who those bones belonged to. I came up with the character Claire and that saga of love and tragedy, 'Cranes of Potter'.
Who would be your dream collaboration?
I’d love to write one or sing one with Chris Knight. I believe he’s one of the best to have ever done this and I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves.
You can expect to see me out on the road a decent amount in the middle part of next year putting on one hell of a show!
How The Mighty Fall is out now