A song-circle encounter above an Indian restaurant in West Virginia’s capital city in 2018 will bear harmonic fruit with the March 25, 2022 national release of a CD of stellar tunes by singer-songwriter Chris Haddox. But below is an advance peek.
The leader of the “Mountain Stage” band, Ron Sowell, was in the audience that night and buttonholed the Logan County-born songwriter after hearing his evocative, story-rich lyricism. They went on to collaborate on a CD of original tunes by Haddox, who is by day a West Virginia University professor, but with deep chops on stage as a writer and performer.
Among the singles released in advance of the CD release is the resonant tune “A Soul Can’t Rest In Peace Beside the Four Lane.” The song paints an historic and contemporary portrait of the West Virginia hills, where life and death, birth and funerals, once unfolded quietly in small, tucked-away communities. The coming of highways and busy byways interrupted so much of that traditional life. The song captures the bittersweet change while harkening to a time lost, now, to memory and old photographs.
Sowell asked AMP Media, the multimedia production house that creates this site’s documentary and music video work, about creating a video of a tune that is both a standalone piece of high craft and a snapshot of Appalachian social history. The music video was shot by Bobby Lee Messer and co-produced by him and Douglas John Imbrogno, editor of WestVirginiaVille.com, who interviewed Chris via e-mail about his songcraft and his life. See the video and interview below.
NOTE: Chris Haddox performs on “Mountain Stage” on March 27, 2022, along with Janis Ian, Lido Pimienta, Beppe Gambetta, and Philip B. Price, at WVU’s Creative Arts Center in Morgantown WV. More information here.
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WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: Your website bio says you’re the kind of musician who “never met a stringed instrument he couldn’t master.” So, what’s a list of instruments you’re comfortable playing on stage?
CHRIS HADDOX: Guitar is the primary instrument, though I’ll play banjo and fiddle from time to time. Mandolin less often. Used to play the Dobro, but I no longer own one, so playing time on that has pretty much stopped. I did play it on a recording of an original song that appears on the “Songs and Stories of Scotts Run.”
WV: You’ve said of your songs: “Like most writers, I try to find new ways to address old topics. Some songs are funny, some sad, some sarcastic but they are all honest — even the ones that are full of lies.” Can you talk more about this art of honestly lying? What is songwriting to you and what is the singer-songwriter’s role?
CHRIS HADDOX: Honestly lying. Hmm…. well, let’s say there is a kernel of truth in everything I write. I come from a line of storytellers. Not professional or anything like that, but my dad, uncle, and mom could all spin pretty good tales. So, an honest lie might really just be a truth stretched. For me, songwriting is a way to process things that run through my head, and it also serves as a creative outlet. While I am pretty outgoing, I don’t like to try to be the loudest voice in the room in a conversation. Songwriting, and performing those songs, allows me to get points across that I might not really be able to do in a conversation.
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WV: What was the initial ‘a-ha’ inspiration for “A Soul Can’t Rest in Peace Beside the Four Lane”? There seem almost two worlds in a rural state like West Virginia: the fading, old country life and the incursion of 18-wheelers barreling and downshifting through the hills with fast-food chain joints sprouting at every exit.
CHRIS HADDOX: You nailed it. I tell people — and it’s true — that the genesis of that song was a 16-year-old riding on a new-cut road through the center of WV and taking note of the changes to the landscape. I felt bad about the big cuts in the mountains and the pain being inflicted on the natural world, if you will. Later, the social impacts of four lane-informed development began to sink in. It literally took me decades for that song to fully form in my mind. I’ve had people at shows just sit there and sob at that song — an indication that the theme is one that resonates deeply with some people.
WV: Lest people think you’re just a bard of the Appalachian outback, you write other, genuinely offbeat songs like “Kalashnikov.” The song enters into the mind of the historical creator of the uber-reliable automatic rifle named after its inventor — which became a choice weapon for warmakers and revolutionaries worldwide, spilling oceans of blood. But that wasn’t what he wanted, the song says, as Kalshnikov ponders his soul’s fate. He tells “the Patriarch” he just wished to make a reliable weapon for the motherland: “Is there blood on my hands, / ’cause in my heart I feel / God will judge me for this …” What was the impetus for this song, which is also a good example of writing that enters into the world of its character without judging that world from the outside.
CHRIS HADDOX: “Kalashnikov” came about on the heels of one of the seemingly endless string of school shootings. As the commentators kept describing the type of weapon used in the shooting — some type of automatic rifle — I asked myself, in a rhetorical type of way, why we had such weapons? I really did want to better understand the process that would lead someone to invent something like an automatic rifle. So, I started reading up on Mikhail Kalashnikov, as his AK-47 seemed to be the mothership of such weapons. (NOTE: AK-47 stands for ‘Automat Kalashnikova 1947,’ the year it was first produced.) He didn’t shy away from boasting about his accomplishments — that his gun was superior to the German Sturmgewehr that was facilitating the massacre of Russian troops. And there is no shortage of pictures of him proudly showing off his invention. I was struck by some of his words, though, where he referenced a different life he had in mind for himself — that of a poet and writer of prose. He mentioned he wanted to use his mechanical genius to help the country farmer and homeowner with equipment for managing their land.
Later in life, when the AK-47 became the weapon of choice — and a de facto symbol for terrorists — he commented that he meant the AK-47 to be used as a deterrent to war. I also read where he approached the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, troubled by thoughts that God would not look favorably on him entering heaven — an act, I suppose, that reveals some level of regret for unleashing the AK-47 on the world. I’ve had a variety of reactions to this song at my shows. Some think it is complete bull, while others are moved deeply by the portrayal of the complexities and competing interests that live in most of us.
WV: By day, you’re a professor of sustainable design — or to use your formal title, an Associate Professor in the School of Design and Community Development at West Virginia University in Morgantown. What is your thing as a professor? What do you hope to accomplish?
CHRIS HADDOX: When I was a college student, at least in my freshman year, I just didn’t get the idea that I was there to learn to think. I was all about absorbing facts and figures. My goal with my students is to equip them with some basic knowledge, then try to get them thinking about the world around them — how they can incorporate that knowledge, along with incorporating things they already know, to effect positive change. To be kind, loving, thoughtful, and to embrace the power of learning.
WV: You’re a self-described amateur musicologist, delving into such efforts as the “Songs & Stories of Scott’s Run Project” in Monongalia County, while also researching musicians from West Virginia’s southern coalfields. What have you learned about that musical legacy? And do you feel your own music is part of a particular legacy?
CHRIS HADDOX: I have learned that the world of what we call folk music has been heavily influenced by musicians from southern West Virginia. I’ve learned that my little hometown and surrounding areas were ripe with extremely talented singers and pickers. Still are, for that matter. I’ve learned that there were all kinds of folks whose dreams were not that dissimilar to mine on the music front. I don’t really think too much about how/if my music might impact other musicians and/or writers. I do love the connections the music has fostered with listeners. If one of my songs or instrumental pieces resonates with another human being, bringing them some moment, some level of joy, understanding, connection… well, I’m happy with that.
WV: Who are your own musical icons/mentors/inspirations?
CHRIS HADDOX: I have so many musical influences, it would be impossible to list them all. My mom, dad, uncle, brother, and sister were/are all musical. I’m the only one, besides my uncle, who gravitated to instruments and stuck with them. I didn’t get to know my uncle very well, but the few times I did hear him play and sing are etched deep in my memory. I also recall him, as well as my mom and dad, recalling his own dreams of making it in the music industry, but work and life just kinda’ got in the way. Perhaps that’s what has driven me to keep plugging away at it all these years.
WVILLE: Your website bio notes: “If you live in Appalachia, a land of savage contrasts, you develop a relationship to obscurity and miscommunication. Many outsiders willfully misunderstand us.” Is songwriting a way to talk back to this willful misunderstanding?
CHRIS HADDOX: I believe it is, yes. One thing I hear from listeners is that they enjoy the smartness of my lyrics. I strive to use colorful language that reflects local traditions and usages, but that is also deadly descriptive. My songs get too wordy — something I’m very aware of, and not something that is likely to change. But they are not wordy just to be wordy. I mean, I sing about the end of coal, but try to do so from a “Hey, we are all in the same boat — if it sinks, we all sink” point of view. Vilification of people is not something I strive for. Well, maybe there are more than a few politicians around the globe that I’ll willfully vilify.
WV: Ask yourself a question you wish someone would ask you — and answer it.
CHRIS HADDOX: Did that nose come with the glasses? Nope!
OK… here is another. What do you get out of going out to track down dead people you never knew, and who are not related to you? And that are often buried in little mountain cemeteries that are often lost to time and memory? I think it is a way for me to find some connection to a way of life I never really knew, but have longed for and romanticized in my mind. I knew one grandparent, but heard tales about family farms — simple, but hard, lives in the country. I love connecting with people. This odd activity of grave hunting helps me do that in some strange way.
Hear more music by Chris Haddox at chrishaddoxmusic.com.
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