Charles Wesley Godwin’s How the Mighty Fall evokes laurel-covered hillsides, and the smell of morning still ringing from the previous night’s revel. Dressed in fiddle and danced in dobro, Godwin and his band of mountaineers rifle through righteous movers barely breaking stride to plunge into deeper balladry before raising the curtain on hard-breathing, flesh & bone sagas of family, love, and murder. It’s the kind of album that matures with each subsequent listen, held aloft as strongly by verse as it is by personnel. Like his excellent previous effort Seneca, West Virginia is a revered backdrop populated with the all too real and the carefully crafted, both adeptly ministered and revealing the Mountain State through the hopeful eyes of a native son. Godwin’s tremolo-infused voice matches his historian’s eye for detail to deliver a balance of epic and immediate that dares to reverberate long after the last note fades.
Charles Wesley Godwin will be LIVE at Grant’s Lounge on Saturday, May 7th!
AI- When did you start writing How the Mighty Fall?
CWG- The first song on the album, I think it was written in 2014. And then the next one was probably December 2018.
So when I’ve seen people talk about how you’re shifting from the more personal songs into the character-driven narratives, this is not a new change. This is something that you have been doin’ all along.
It’s somethin’ that I’ve been tryin’ to do. I’ve just always taken ’em one song at a time and just done the best that I can. The way Seneca sorted out was that those songs fit together. So that’s why those made it on that album even though I had some of the songs that ended up on this album already in the bag. They just didn’t fit as well as the songs on Seneca did.
I also think that maybe with Seneca, it was a case of maybe showing West Virginia to the world, and then maybe this time around you’re lookin’ at the world from West Virginia.
Yeah! Seneca was definitely focused. The sense of place was in West Virginia and then a lot of the songs were centered around that setting. With this one, yeah, it’s like you said. It has a sense of place. I can’t change that ’cause this is just what I know and where I’m from. I think just about everything I’m gonna write is gonna be from that perspective, but then the subject matter of the songs is analyzing things from narrators and characters that are things that happen all over the place.
You reunited without Al Torrence for this record. As you just mentioned, some of these songs date back to the time you were puttin’ together Seneca, but it’s obvious that you two have put somethin’ very special together. Tell me about how that relationship has evolved since the last record.
Al was one of the first people that I ran across in music. It’s not like I’m the most experienced person in the world, but when I was tryin’ to record anything, even prior to Seneca with old bands and stuff like that, Al was one of the first people that I ever ran across that would tell it to me straight and tell me if he’s hearin’ somethin’. He had a good ear and good ideas, and we had chemistry because of that. It’s hard to find that when you’re in a sound room recording somethin’– to get people that’ll actually tell you what they think. Most folks are pretty uncomfortable doing that, so they just say, “Oh, it sounds great! That sounds good!” But that doesn’t really help. He filled in a lot of the weaknesses that I have, so yeah, that’s who I make albums with!
He owns a studio up in New Brighton, Pennsylvania called Music Garden Studios. That’s where we made Seneca, and that’s where I went back to make this album. I know some folks like to reinvent themselves and they decide before they even make an album that they’re gonna make it some sort of different genre or something like that. I’m not tryin’ to do that. I’m just tryin’ to write the best songs that I can and then make them sound the best that I can, and I hope that it’s turned into somethin’ that is my sound that is unique to me. That’s all I’m tryin’ to do.
I love so many of the tones on the album– but I gotta say, y’all really, really nailed the fiddle. Who is that playin’ the fiddle?
That’s Ben Townsend. He’s a West Virginia fiddler. At the time we made the album, he was based out of Elkins, West Virginia…
Which is where I’m from!
Oh, for real? Yeah, he’s absolutely killer! He played the fiddle on Seneca and this album.
What about the rest of the players and singers on the album?
A lot of the guys were the same guys that recorded Seneca with me. Most of ’em are in my road band, and all the other guys grew up in the same area as Al did. We gathered ’em up again because they did such a great job on Seneca. Why not bring ’em on again!
I love the song “Jesse”. The story behind that– out for a run and seein’ the graffiti– I can’t tell you how many times that I have seen somethin’ spray-painted on a wall downtown or on the side of a train or on an overpass, and I always drift and wonder what the circumstances were behind the words or the picture.
I was playing in Beckley a few years ago– Beckley, West Virginia– and it was back when I was with my old band. We were just playin’ 4-hour bar gigs and all, and I’ve always run when I’m on the road. It helps me stay somewhat thin! I ran underneath an old bridge. It looked like he was probably from the early 1900s probably. It had these three big stone support columns goin’ across one ridge top to the other. The road was downtown in the little hollow and it had graffiti all over it, all kinds of stuff, you know, the big bubble letters. I was just kinda glancing at it as I was runnin’ by, seein’ what people had sprayed on there.
There was this one thing that was written in red and it said, “Are you thinking of me like I’m thinking of you?” I was just kinda like, “Wow, somebody’s workin’ through somethin’ to be sprayin’ that on a bridge in the middle of the night!” And they didn’t really do it artistically either, just sprayed it on there like somebody would write on a protest sign! I just fantasized what that might be about. In my head, I pictured that it was a girl that had done it, that had let some guy go in her past that she was regretting. He had moved on and done better things with his life, and she was regretting it.
“Lyin’ Low”… I was curious to know, when did that one get written? Because that one almost feels like a pandemic song, like that was your mantra for the COVID-19 pandemic.
The interesting thing about that one is I wrote that one December of 2019. I hadn’t even heard of COVID-19 yet! I’d just had my first child. My son was born and my priorities kinda got rearranged in my head. Things that just a few weeks before that seemed to be the most important things in the world weren’t necessarily that important anymore. “Lyin’ Low” to me was a song where I was sorting out my own priorities. From that point forward, family was the most important thing in my life. Home is what mattered. Of course, I still gotta go out there and work and do my best to try to make a career for myself– but at a certain point, when you have a home and you have a family and you have a place where you belong, what’s the point of chasing more and more and more? There’s a point of diminishing returns, and “Lyin’ Low” was just me settin’ my own priorities straight.
I couldn’t agree more. My daughter just turned five, and as a matter of fact, I believe you’ve got another one on the way, don’t you?
Yeah! We got another one comin’ in February!
Congratulations on that! But it’s amazing to me how as individuals, we never really give becoming a parent the credence that it deserves until it happens to us. I mean, like, “Yeah, that’d be great. That’d be nice.” But then it happens and then, like you say, it’s just like a switch gets flipped, automatically changes every single priority you’ve ever had!
Exactly! It’s a total 180 in your mind and your heart about your priorities and what’s important in life goin’ forward.
So that’s a significant moment for you personally, but what about artistically as a songwriter? Do you see that influencing the way that you write now, the way that you perceive songs?
I think it’s allowed me to have more empathy and understanding for human experiences. Prior to being a parent, I could only speculate on what it would feel like to be a parent and to have children. And now that I know how that feels and what that’s like, it definitely expands the subjects and things that I can write on. There’s a little bit of that probably in everything that I write now goin’ forward. I think for the better!
I’ve seen your music described on several occasions as cinematic, and I think that “Gas Well” certainly lives up to that term. And with that song, not only is it this huge epic track, but you travel across so many styles!
(Laughs) Yeah, man, that’s a wild one! I’d never written a song like that one!
Well, you kinda do the same thing a little bit later on with “Blood Feud”, which I think has got the greatest use of crickets that I’ve ever heard in a song! It has that little break and then it drops down. Had you considered doing the song in that slower, darker style instead of the rock n’ roll?
No, that’s just how I wrote it. I don’t know how it really came out like that, it just did. I had a lot of help with that one from Larry Hooper. He’s a songwriter from a little town outside of Fort Worth. I’d been stuck on that one. I started it when I was on my European tour back in February of 2020, and I was workin’ on it later that summer. I think was maybe May or June– and I just got stuck! I didn’t really have a good sense of where I wanted to go after that first verse. Larry broke the dam there and got me goin’ with the second verse and then I think within a day, it was finished after that! That’s how the song came out as weird as it is!
I guess you kinda need that little ending there ’cause I bet that one gets everybody wound up pretty good when you do it live!
Yeah! Yeah, that’s a fun song to do live! We get after it live! The ending there, I was puttin’ myself in the shoes of the narrator, and if somebody had jumped my brother and killed him, what I would do when I had that moment where they’re at my feet. I just thought, “Well, I’d probably let out a war cry! It’d be guttural and it’d be primal! I’d be seein’ red!”
“Cranes of Potter” is just a great, beautiful, heartbreaking, and chilling story. Tell me where that came from.
I was drivin’ up to the studio in New Brighton a few years ago and didn’t know it when I drove by it that day, but they’d just started building a new cracker plant by the Ohio River. There was a skyline of cranes unlike any that I’d ever seen before. I’d never seen that many in one place and it was a profound sight. I went into the studio and asked the guys, “What’s goin’ on over there? What were they workin’ on? What are they building?” And they told me, they’re buildin’ a new cracker plant where they break up natural gas into different compounds and make plastics and stuff like that. They said when they were breakin’ ground– there’s a story in their local paper as I was told– they’d found human remains buried shallow and they’d called the police out. I think everybody at that initial point probably thought it was a cold case body. When they got the dating back on the bones, it turned out it was a body from 150 years ago! And they have no idea who it was! Obviously, that’s a hell of an interesting story and I just fantasized who that might be and what the story behind that might be.
Wow! That’s a great story on its own right there!
It’s in Potter Township, so that’s where the Potter came from.
Charles, you’ve done yourself with this new record! I’m curious though… Takin’ into consideration that song, “Cranes of Potter”, talkin’ about the cinematic aspect of “Gas Well”, and then I with “Bones”, you’ve got huge swells, great guitar tones– do you see your work growing and becoming more operatic?
Man, I don’t know (laughs)! To be honest with you, I just take it one song at a time and how they turn out, I was tryin’ to make it sound the best that it can. But I don’t have any plans of making big epic songs or anything. I make ’em one at a time as they come. Some of the songs that have been writing this year have been very simple and will probably end up being solo acoustic songs whenever I do record them. I don’t really have any plans. Some of the songs on How the Mighty Fall turned out that way because that just served them the best.