For some, life is for the here and now. It’s an oyster to savor. But for some others, they see life more as a continuum, with their particular time on earth being part of a greater lineage of family, people, and culture. They know who they would and wouldn’t be without the ones that came before them, and they are patently aware how their lives will shape the future for their children, and their children’s children who will continue on with their legacy.
Out in the country—and in country music specifically—this ancestral awareness is often more prevalent, and that’s certainly the case for Charles Wesley Godwin. His first solo album Seneca (2019) was very much written from the consciousness of who he was and where he was from as a son of West Virginia, tying the story of the land to his own in an almost seamless, symbiotic bond. Godwin’s second album How The Mighty Fall (2021) included more fictional accounts, but still very much revolved around the West Virginia experience.
With Family Ties, Godwin continues on this path, but now as a father and an emerging forebearer all his own. Written after a moment when he experienced major writer’s block, he ultimately chose to lean into what he does best—singing about his life and experiences as a man from Appalachia, and in this instance, centering it around the pull of history upon him to honor his family, do right by his name, and hopefully, leave a legacy that will live up to the honor he feels indebted to hold to.
Brilliantly written, lovingly produced, and passionately performed, Family Ties is a testament to the ties that bind one to this world. This overarching theme is established in the title track where Godwin conveys both a weight of obligation, and a devout sense of purpose to be right by his family in his words and his deeds every day.
“Miner Imperfections” with its play on words referring to the region’s coal industry along with our fallible nature delivers keen insight into how none of us are perfect, but it’s the yearning to be true in all your actions that is most important. Just as Godwin forgives those who came before him for failures and shortcomings, he hopes his children will give the same grace to him.
In a time when it seems like everyone wants to tear at the fabric of society and bulldoze everything established in favor of some new version of life, Godwin makes a simple plea for stability and family, which in this moment might be one of the most radical proclamations one can forward.
In “The Flood,” Godwin makes the audience contemplate if they would risk their own lives to save one of their kin. In “All Again” he reaffirms his commitment to his wife. In “Gabriel,” he owns his obligations as a father, while also establishing that he wants his children to be their own people, carried further on “Dancing In The Rain.” “Another Leaf” is about, well … it’s about the things mommies and daddies do when they decide the family needs another member.
Where the first portion of Family Ties sets very rigid parameters around the philosophical approach Godwin brings to family, the second half presents the tribulations one goes through to test those commitments—something Godwin can attest to very personally as a musician who is constantly getting pulled away form hearth and home.
Family Ties really is like two separate works, and is made easier to contemplate as such with a track shy of 20. The first portion is more cohesive and linear, while the second is a bit more manic, even if it lands on its feet. “Skyline Blues” and “West of Lonesome” are classic country music stories about when someone ventures too far away from their roots and purpose, often tempted by the pull of opportunity from the city.
“Two Weeks Gone” and “Soul Like Mine” speak to the underlying worry Godwin feels when he’s out on the road away from the family that grounds him. Though it’s the confidence behind Godwin’s voice that has always been one of his musical assets, it’s the vulnerability he conveys in “Soul Like Mine” that almost makes it hard to listen to in the best of ways. The desperation is palpable.
Charles Wesley Godwin has a natural way of making everything that happens in his music feel titanic and monumental. There is a controlled rage behind it that every once in a while bursts out uncontrollably, while the favoring of minor chords often gives these moments a dark and ominous tone, even when the story doesn’t necessarily go in that direction. This is how Godwin’s songs demand your attention, and fully immerse you into the listening experience.
“10-38” is far and away the most curious track on the album. Not intuitively fitting within the overall narrative whatsoever, it nonetheless conveys the same push and pull between stability and madness—between upstanding character and a fall from grace—illustrating that dichotomy better than any other moment on an album that ultimately is about that fine line dividing most every moment in life.
Meanwhile producer Al Torrence, who is the Frank Zappa-looking lead guitar player from Charles Wesley Godwin’s live band, strikes the perfect balance between soft and loud, and rootsy and rocking as Family Ties unfolds. There is country instrumentation and country songs for sure. But similar to his fellow Appalachian songwriters, the most important element to each song is the writing and performance, not necessarily the genre it conveys.
About the only misstep is “Cue Country Roads,” which is full of both lyrical and sonic clichés that are almost stunning when they hit your ear after such a spellbinding experience leading up to it. But that’s why God made a skip button, and capping off the album with “Take Me Home, Country Roads” leading into “By Your Side” feels chef kiss perfect with the way Godwin has embraced the John Denver track live, and it’s so native to his own experience.
Family Ties is a lot to take in and digest. Godwin takes you through such a range of emotions and ideas throughout the process, and the 1 hour, 10 minute run time makes it all immersive if you want to take it in via one sitting. As so many men and women deal with both abject fear and swelling pride contemplating their place in life, family, and the continuum of experience, Godwin gives voice in a work that feels as epic as it does expansive and complete.
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