West Virginia songwriter breaks out on his own for forthcoming debut, 'Seneca'

Growing up in Morgantown, West Virginia, Charles Wesley Godwin never felt a specific calling. He spent his adolescence searching for something he could do well. Singing, playing guitar, writing songs — none of that ever crossed his mind.

“I didn't grow up in a musical family, so I just never even considered that to be something that I would be good at,” Godwin said recently by phone from the road. “I didn't even grow up singing in church or anything, just because I assumed that I couldn't sing.

At West Virginia University, Godwin hoped he could make the football team as a walk-on. “I tried out and got cut. I tried again — same result,” he said. “I haven't told anybody this, but I tried again. I tried three times and got cut all three times. … So I finally resolved that it just wasn't going to happen. I wasn't gonna get to be Rudy.”

But he still needed a hobby — something to pursue outside of his finance degree. “I was watching the Avett Brothers play with Bob Dylan at the Grammys [in 2011],” he said. “I really enjoyed that, and I was like, ‘Maybe I should get a guitar and just learn to play. ... This might turn out to be something that I could enjoy doing by myself in my living room, in the evenings, for the rest of my life.' I had no intentions of playing in front of anybody.”

But when Godwin studied abroad in Estonia, a crowd would begin to gather while he practiced. He started playing in bars and restaurants. “When people started enjoying it and wanting to hear me play, and then offering to pay me money, then I was like, ‘Oh, I must be OK,'” he said.

Back in West Virginia, Godwin got his start in the band Union Sound Treaty, and then broke out on his own. His first solo album, Seneca, comes out in February. The Americana tunes draw heavily from the songwriter's Appalachian upbringing; when Godwin sings about “closed-up towns, forgotten dreams and welcome signs fading far behind” in “Coal Country,” he sings it as the son of a coal miner.

Throughout Seneca, Godwin paints a picture of his home state that's more nuanced and complex than lazy stereotypes would suggest. “There are some people that look down on the intellect of the folks that are from my region of the country,” he said. “People might have the perspective that West Virginians are combative, like, 'Coal will never die! We're going to keep it forever!' But I think West Virginians are very self-aware and understand the reality of the economy and energy. … It really comes down to everybody just wanting to look after their neighbor.”