Frank Newsome Muses on Faith, Geography and the Past on His New Record, 'Gone Away With a Friend'

Pat Jarrett/Virginia Humanities
Frank Newsome

Unlike many who release an album, stardom isn’t on Frank Newsome’s mind. The native of Haysi, Virginia, spent many years in the coal mines of Appalachia, turning to a full-time career in the ministry in the mid-1970s. He currently serves as the pastor for six different churches of the Old Regular Baptist faith -- alternating each week -- in the mountain hills. One trait of the churches that Newsome grew up in is that you won’t hear any instruments at the services. Instead, the congregation sings the hymns of the church in ancient lined-out tones -- very similar to some of the classic Gospel music recorded by Ralph Stanley, who grew up around much of the same music.

Newsome’s voice -- and that great mountain tradition -- comes to the forefront of Gone Away With A Friend, a new collection released on Free Dirt Records. The recording was made at the Little David Church several years ago but wasn’t widely distributed. A few years ago, Newsome became acquainted with Americana stalwart Jim Lauderdale through his friendship with Stanley. Through Lauderdale’s encouragement, the album can finally be heard by the masses. Lauderdale tells Billboard that he was just glad to help give Newsome a voice.

"When I first heard Frank sing at Ralph Stanley Festival several years back I was moved to tears. The sound of his voice was like nothing I had ever heard," says Lauderdale. "The next year at Merlefest I went to a workshop on field recordings by Jon Lohman and Mike Seegar and afterward approached Jon with the idea of recording Frank. He needs to be heard and I'm so glad that those that can't hear him live get to hear him on these recordings. His voice and spirit are important ones that will touch you deeply.”

Newsome says the songs on the disc were recorded the same way he remembers singing them in the 1940s and 1950s growing up.

“We didn’t have music -- pianos or guitars,” he recalls. “All of the congregation all gathered in and when we would start singing, we would sing the line out in the songs where all the congregation could join in and help.”

It might be a bit primitive for some, but Newsome says the lined-note way of singing touches him like no other.

“When we sign the old way of a line-out, the whole congregation just joins right in, and that makes the best music you can imagine. When everyone is all together, there’s not a single sound under heaven that sounds like the old time a capella singing.”

A true man of the mountains, when you hear Newsome’s voice, it’s not clean -- or even conventionally pretty. It’s very much lived in, having been helped along by his many years under the ground digging for coal. In towns like Haysi, that’s simply what you did.

“That’s the only way in the hill country here -- if you wanted a job to make anything or support your family, that is the best paying job you can get. I loaded coal with a No. 4 shovel, and the cars were two-ton cars. You got about a dollar a car. I loaded 15 to 20 a day, and back then, $20 was worth something.” He asserts that he paid the price, however. “Black lung, coal dust, and rock dust has just about got me.”

John Smith, from Smithsonian Folkways, says that Gone Away With A Friend was the perfect record for his organization to get behind. "[Virginia State Folklorist] Jon Lohman and I have worked together in the past and I'd known Frank before since he's an NEA Fellow," he says. "Smithsonian Folkways does a lot of work with that organization. When Jon was telling me about the situation and that the album hadn't really gotten out much beyond, it sounded like the perfect fit for Free Dirt. Free Dirt wants to give organizations like Virginia Folklife Program at Virginia Humanities infrastructure to work with. We've done this work before with Northwest Folklife and Alabama Folklife. We distribute their content and advise them on navigating the music marketplace.”

To give this music of the hills a wider focus is something that Smith feels is his duty. Frank's singing wasn't really well-documented. His style of performing and his story needs to be told to a wider audience. His vocals are obviously haunting and beautiful, but it was more about the fact that this sort of music has not had a light shined on it at all. This is a tradition of Appalachian music that is vitally important but just isn't well known. That's the kind of music we want to work with."

Lohman knows that the music on Gone Away With A Friend is different. That, he says, is the magic of it.

“This is music in its purest form, the human voice. It's a direct line, a spiritual music. I think there's more openness among the listening public now for this type of music," he says. "People want to hear music that's real, that exists outside of a studio -- to kind of get in touch with the remaining American vernacular traditions that they're not as exposed to. I'm impressed with the new generation of listeners. They're so dialed in in terms of technology in a way that my generation never will be. They have this yearning and craving and appreciation for the old ways. From young people making cheese or craft beer to listening to field recordings from the Library of Congress. That's impressive."

Having a record out -- and getting attention for it -- is something that Newsome is proud of. But, he’s not thinking of bright lights, cameras, or red carpets. His aim for the music on the album is a bit more simple.

“I done it to help my home church, and if it will comfort anybody, and cause one man or woman to turn to the Lord, and repent of their sins and be born again in a spiritual birth with Jesus Christ, then it’s worth everything.”