By Kevin Broughton
There’s a quiet, humble confidence to Charles Wesley Godwin. It’s like he almost knows he’s made a special record but can’t quite believe it. Maybe it’s because the 26-year-old West Virginian is relatively new to the guitar, let alone using it and his voice to make a living. There’s a determination in him, not just to succeed, but to prove to himself and his state and region that anything is possible.
Godwin paints a rich and honest portrayal of his homeland and its people with his debut album. Seneca is a moving snapshot of life and well-soiled roots in the Appalachian hills, a backdrop that has given birth to some of the most intelligent and hard-working people in the country.
Godwin’s voice is weighed down by the current condition of the world, but he doesn’t allow the tragedy, pain, or regret sour his view of life. That’s what makes him an exceptional storyteller; he employs his experiences into melodically profound and timeless compositions. “Seneca Creek,” a stunning ballad laced with both melancholy and hope, tells the tale of his grandparents and their courtship in the spring of 1949.
Another essential piece of his story, “Shrinks and Pills” exhibits a dry, sly humor and sees Godwin lament the roar of the open road in his ears and an unquenchable homesickness wedged deep in his bones. He misses the comfort of his homestead, but he wouldn’t have it any other way--heartache be damned. “Hardwood Floors” dazzles in the dim light of a local pub as he shares a tender embrace with his wife amidst the ho-hum of the crowd.
Godwin is quick to credit producer Al Torrence for the album’s balance, flow and continuity. And we’ll step way out on a limb here and suggest there’s collaborative potential that could reach the lofty heights of Jason Isbell and Dave Cobb. This record is that good.
The artist counts every day as a both a blessing and an opportunity, taking nothing for granted. This is a guy who would succeed in just about anything he attempted, and sees no reason why anybody else wouldn’t.
Grounded. Humble. Nice. Hopeful. Who wouldn’t want to spend time with Charles Godwin and talk about Big-12 football, Estonia, and Waylon’s drummer?
How did you and producer/engineer Al Torrence connect?
When I was playing with my old band, Union Sound Treaty, we made one album and that was comprised of my first batch of songs. Al worked those sessions as an engineer, and we were just really comfortable together. He’s a Berkley School of Music grad, and his knowledge of music is really impressive. We just worked well together. He’s put it all on the line the way I have, and I really like him.
A lot of these songs are easy to picture in an intimate setting, just you and a guitar, and I imagine that’s how you worked out a lot of them before recording. Some of them, though, like “The Last Bite” and “Sorry For The Wait,” have a really sweeping, big sound. Had you done those with a full band on the road, or were those arrangements put together in the studio?
It was done in the studio. It’s a setup I would love to take on the road, but I wouldn’t be able to do that unless I could pay everybody a living, know what I mean? But if the opportunity ever arises, everything on the album I’ll bring out on the road with me, without a doubt.
“Pour it On” is another one with a big, full feel to it, and “Windmill” of course. You have a pretty good balance of songs here of different arrangements. Was that a purposeful thing when you were picking which 13 songs would go on the album?
Neither he nor I were too concerned about the tempo; we just wanted to pick the songs that were related, sorta, to the theme of the album, which is my home. We wanted to stick to that, but I do think it is pretty well balanced.
There are a couple things in your bio one doesn’t see every day from a singer-songwriter. You hail from Morgantown, and actually tried to walk on the football team at WVU. What was that like?
Yeah, I love football and really love playing it, and I had always dreamed about playing football for West Virginia; I wanted just to go out and make a few plays for ‘em, if I could. And it’s something I tried really, really hard to do my first couple years of college. But, you know, I just wasn’t good enough. I didn’t have any delusions going into it and knew I probably wasn’t physically gifted enough to do it…
Were you a defensive back in high school? You look kinda like a safety.
I was an outside linebacker. I used to work out really hard. It was something that I didn’t have the natural ability for. I hadn’t started playing music yet, but up to that point nothing had come easily for me and I really wanted to try it.
|From Charles Wesley Godwin's Instagram|
Well, that’s just kind of a rarity, you know? “Aspiring Big-12 athlete” and “singer songwriter” aren’t terms usually heard in the same sentence; I’m trying to think…I think Ryan Bingham was a rodeo cowboy for a while…
(Laughs) Well, having the phrase “Big 12 athlete” anywhere near my name is probably not correct. I didn’t make the team, but I wanted to try it, and it was the first big dream in my life that didn’t come true.
And you picked up the guitar in earnest while studying abroad in Estonia of all places. What was your course of study that would send you to the Baltic region?
Yeah. That was interesting there, because WVU has a really good “study abroad” program, and I got the “Promise” scholarship because I was an in-state kid who had good grades in high school, and it covers your study overseas as well if you’re able to get a plane ticket. I was in the finance program, and there were only a few options where you could get your credits for study abroad. They partner with hundreds of universities, but only four of them had classes that I hadn’t taken yet that would go towards my degree: Hartfordshire, England; Hamburg, Germany; Hong Kong; and Tartu, Estonia. The last one sounded cool to me.
How long were you there, and it that where you really decided to dive into the music thing?
I was there six months, and by happenstance I started playing in front of people for the first time there. I played my first gigs there, and yeah, I kinda got spoiled there thinking, “Aw, this will be easy.” But that’s where I really got started, for sure, thinking I could be a musician. And when I graduated college I had it set in my mind that I was gonna keep going with it.
|Charles Wesley (Wikipedia)|
There was a pretty famous Methodist composer of hymns named Charles Wesley. Were you named for him?
Sort of. My grandfather was a Methodist preacher, Charles Godwin. So, I would say it’s 1A I was named after my granddad and 1B Charles Wesley. But yeah, I come from…well, on the Godwin side of the family we’re all Methodists. My granddad was a preacher, and then I also have an uncle and an aunt who are Methodist ministers.
I suppose the comparisons you’ve received to Tyler Childers and to a lesser extent Colter Wall are inevitable. Those guys came on the scene over the last couple years with a certain level of instant credibility. What do you think about the comparisons? Do you feel any kind of pressure there, or do you put any on yourself as a result of them?
I’ve heard some of those same things from people. I don’t put any pressure on myself; it’s certainly a hell of a compliment, to hear anybody say that I would remind them of either of those two. They’re both really good at what they do, really good songwriters. But yeah, I’ll take that compliment any day of the week. I believe in my work and I’m really proud of this album. If certain people want to categorize it along with those guys, I’m more than okay with that.
Your portrayal of coal country is certainly authentic and real, but not necessarily as dark as one might expect it to be. Appalachia has gotten its share of rough cultural PR over the years, but there’s an optimistic feel to this record. Were you pushing back a little bit?
Yeah. Yeah. I always have a tough time articulating this in conversation and I think it always comes out better in song. Home is what we make it, and there are a lot of smart, talented people in West Virginia. With the Internet, anybody can do anything, anywhere. There are a lot of opportunities.
I remember I was playing a show in Pineville, West Virginia in February of last year. I was sitting at the bar after the show, and this guy came up to me and said, “Man thanks for coming here and playing for us. Not many people come here, and people overlook us.” And I’m thinking Man, I’m not too good to play anywhere. And he was telling me that he works at the pizza shop up the road and that he just drinks after work and there’s nothing to do. All there is to do is drink and get into drugs. And I’m nodding my head, like, yeah, I know it’s rough. And I was staying in Bedford that night, and driving back to the hotel I kinda got mad.
It was one of those things where after the fact you think about what you should have said. And I got mad, and thought, you know what? That’s bullsh*t. I live out in the middle of nowhere, and I’m just trying to do the best I can. There are all kinds of people around the state, carpenters, whatever, who are just making it happen. And that guy could’ve done it, too. There’s plenty to do around there, if he’d just try. That’s where “Here In Eden” comes from.
It’s about making the best of where you are. And that’s the way I feel about West Virginia. There’s no reason nowadays that people can’t succeed if they’re willing to work at it. So yeah, I take the optimistic view. It’s not all doom and gloom. It’s not just drugs and opiates.
The record has already received wide critical acclaim. Do you get the sense that things will change in an appreciable way for you once it’s released? Or that maybe you’re about to become a much more widely known individual?
I really hope so. I can already tell there’s been a noticeable uptick in the attendance at shows. People can review it all they want, but unless it translates to people buying the music and coming to see me play, it doesn’t mean a whole lot. But it would give me a lot of relief if it were to work out and allow me to do this in a greater capacity, because what I’ve been doing the last couple years has been the definition of “the bottom,” and it’s been a hell of a grind.
You got a day job?
No. I’m all in on this.
You’ve already shared bills with some pretty impressive names: Childers, Shooter, Colter Wall, David Allen Coe. Was there a moment as you started doing that more and more that it sort of dawned on you that, “Yeah, this is something I’m really gonna do for a career?”
Um, I don’t think there’s been any show where I’ve opened for anybody that made me more confident that “this is gonna work out.” Every day it’s like a seesaw for me, where I question what it is I’m trying to do for a living. Some parts of the day it’s I got this, and other times it’s WHAT am I doing? I ask myself, “What are the chances you’ll be able to make a middle-class living playing music?” So I wouldn’t say that opening for any of those folks made me think this is gonna work out. I still don’t know if it’s gonna work out.
I will say that the coolest thing – of all the times I’ve opened for anybody – was after the Shooter Jennings show. He had Waymore’s Outlaws with him that night – some of the tour he takes his dad’s old band out with him. I got to talk to Richie Albright, who was Waylon’s drummer from WAY back in the beginning, when he was in Phoenix. Before he ever went to Nashville. I got to talk to Richie for about 30 minutes. And I was so happy about that. I’ll always have that. If this all goes away and music is something I only do for fun -- and like I said, I think about that every day – if it all goes to hell, I’ll always have the fact that I got to hang out and talk with Richie Albright. I wouldn’t want to offend him by saying “I touched a piece of history,” (laughs) but to get to interact with such an important figure in music history was really special.