Abe Partridge photo by Cathy Partridge
Painting portrait by Abe Partridge and Ronny Criss
Abe Partridge on Field Recording, Alabama Skies, and Love In the Dark
Abe Partridge has recently released a vinyl-only EP, Alabama Skies, in the lead up to a full LP, Love in the Dark, which will arrive in February 2023. Several of the song on the EP will appear on the full album, but a couple remain a bonus feature of the EP. Most recently, the track “Abe Patridge’s 403rd Freakout” has also been released, with a video, giving fans an idea of the upcoming LP. All of this creativity spans the last three years or so for Partridge, since like many people, his musical plans became upended, but he used the time and space to write some new tunes and ready them for release.
However, that’s not the only thing that Partridge spent the pandemic period doing, not by a longshot. As a visual artist, his reach expanded considerably and became a major source of work for him during that time, but the largest project he worked on was becoming a field recorder of serpent handling music in Pentecostal churches located throughout Appalachia. An eight-episode podcast titled Alabama Astronaut now encapsulates a substantial portion of that continuing journey for Partridge. While serpent handling is a practice that is blended with religious observance in these churches, Partridge also discovered a body of related undocumented music and set out, with the support of those communities, to make recordings.
I spoke with Abe Partridge about the development of the music on Alabama Skies and Love in the Dark, how that ties into events in his life in recent years, and also about his fascinating, ongoing field recording project.
Americana Highways: Tell me about the vinyl EP, Alabama Skies, that you took on tour, and how that relates to the upcoming LP, Love in the Dark.
Abe Patridge: The EP is vinyl only and four of the six tracks will reach streaming platforms with the release of the album in February.
AH: With the Alabama Skies songs, how far back in time do those go for you? Do you keep a bag full of songs that you’re working on all the time?
AP: What happened was that I was going to put out an album in the summer of 2020 which got shelved, so I wrote new songs, and some of them were ones I thought were better than what I had been releasing. So these are a hodge podge of songs from over the last three years or so. “Alabama Skies” was a song that I only wrote eight or nine months ago, whereas the “403rd Freakout” song was one that I wrote about three years ago.”
AH: What made you think of doing the vinyl EP ahead of the full album? I think that’s a really creative idea that’s nice for fans.
AP: There’s a vinyl pressing plant in the Czech Republic that has about a two-month turnaround as long as you get 200 or less copies. The people who follow my career are really into vinyl so it was a nice promotional thing. There are two tracks on that vinyl that won’t be released on the main record. It’s a thing that says, “Hey, I’m still alive and I’m still making music!”
AH: Were some of these songs recorded in different sessions, since you wrote the songs at different times?
AP: Yes, about half the songs on the record come from an original recording session in 2019. About half were put aside and may see the light of day in the future, for new material. I took regular trips, even during the pandemic, doing field recordings, and I’d stop in Nashville and record a couple of tunes.
AH: That’s the wider context for your life in recent years, the field recordings. I imagine it was helpful that you recorded a lot of these songs in 2019, because your life became very busy on the road when you took on this big project of the field recordings and the podcast visiting Pentecostal churches in Appalachia.
AP: It’s an accident of circumstances and I’m happy how things worked out. I can’t complain. I’ve had some jobs in the past where I had to travel, but nothing like what I was doing during the pandemic. The closest church that I recorded at was six hours away from my house. The furthest one was about 13 hours away. I’d go out and spend two to two and a half weeks a month on the road. Back then, I had a little van and a mattress in my van. I lived in camp grounds and Walmart parking lots and went to serpent handling churches.
AH: Van life is a bit glorified right now, but I’ve always wondered how safe it feels at night.
AP: It’s scary! A lot of Walmarts are 24/7, that felt safer. I got rid of my van about a year ago, but it would have been cost-prohibitive to do it any other way. Not only that, but a lot of the churches I was recording at, there were no hotels in sight.
AH: Did that whole recording program start small for you, and then expand, or did you set off on this mission knowing how much you were going to do?
AP: It’s a long story, obviously. There’s an eight-and-a-half-hour podcast about it. But it originated with me becoming interested in the idea of serpent handling in religious services. I read all the books about it that you could find, and I had met a serpent handling preacher when I was a preacher myself in Kentucky, back in the 2000s. I went and found them and went to one of their churches. When I was there, I heard songs that I was unfamiliar with. I could tell by their lyrical content that they were not going to be sung by any other religious body or group within Christianity because they referenced things such as handling of serpents and consumption of poisons.
I wrote down the lyrics and after that first trip, I tried to find some of those songs. I couldn’t find any of those songs. So I purchased a Sony field recorder, which is still one of the best recorders you can buy. I thought, “I’m going to go and I’m going to try to see if they’ll let me record some of these songs.” I build some relationships with some of the people there. They allowed me to start recording with them. Once I’d established some bonds of trust, they put me onto some other people and places that I could go. I’m still doing that. I was there last Sunday. I’ve been doing this for two and a half years now. I’m not really done.
Back in 2021, I had a friend who was the head of podcasting at the Houston Chronicle who quit his job. He called me and said, “I want to make a podcast about this!” He made a podcast over the period of a year and that podcast has now been released. We just surpassed 10,000 downloads and it’s doing well. But my work with the serpent handlers never has ended. I’m still recording their music in the hopes of producing a documentary-style album.
AH: I know that one of the things about field recordings is that delicate question of whether people are okay with being recorded. In the past, that’s led to conflicts and some less than pretty history. How confident did you feel that recording was acceptable?
AP: There are quite a few churches that still practice serpent handling. I was allowed to record in the smaller of the groups within the small churches. Most of the small groups are called “Jesus Name Serpent Handlers” and they have allowed me in. They’ve welcomed me with open arms. It wasn’t like that in the beginning, because they’ve been maligned and mistreated by most people who come in there with hair styles and clothes like mine.
They were initially suspicious, but especially now that the podcast is out, and they’ve heard it, they are comfortable. They call me “Brother Abe.” But I was a preacher for nine years of my life and I have a theological education. Due to my background, I have hundreds of verses committed to memory in the King James version of the Bible, which is the version that they prefer. I’m able to communicate in a way that probably most people would not be able to. I could talk for an hour just about the way in which these people have been mischaracterized in the past and “hillbilly-fied.”
AH: Do you get the sense that they would like to be known, that they would like to outside world to understand them better?
AB: Listen to “Bonus Episode One,” which is fifteen minutes long. They do seek to be understood.
AH: Regarding your songs, I did want to ask you about “Abe Partridge’s 403rd Freakout.” I’m amazed to hear that you wrote that such a long time ago.
AB: [Laughs] It’s only become more relevant as time has gone by.
AH: Conceptually, it’s a very different song. How did you reach this idea that you were just going to put everything into one song, and let the lyrics run wild?
AB: Well, that’s the way that the brain works when you’re thinking about stuff. Then you have to filter it. I thought it would be cool to do something without the filter, and just string together ideas. That’s the way my brain, at least, works. You start out thinking about an abstract idea and then, by the end of it, you need to turn off your mind. Then there’s all the steps that happen in between. I sat down one day and wrote down thoughts as they came. Then I thought, “You know what? I’m just going to make it all rhyme.” So I made it all rhyme. Then I started playing it. When I play my live shows, it’s one that people want me to play.
AH: Do you have to stick exactly to the lyrics, or do you change it up live?
AB: I’ve changed it. I used to talk about “the orange presidential buffoon.” Now I talk about the “tyrannical Russian buffoon.” Partly because you’ve got the whole nuclear question in there. [Laughs]
AH: I appreciate how organically the ideas flow in the song, and you end up in a different place than when you started. It’s not that far from some of the crazier lyrics of Bob Dylan, or maybe even Leonard Cohen, when they let themselves get going with storytelling lyrics.
AB: Those guys are my inspiration. Even the name of that song is kind of a take-off of Bob Dylan’s stuff, where he numbers things.
AH: I also thought of The Rolling Stones’ “19th Nervous Breakdown.” The song “Pop Country Is For Posers” has a lot of storytelling elements, but it jumps off into conceptual stuff, too. You feel like you’re in a place and time, but it has bigger implications. How close is this to the way that you feel?
AB: [Laughs] One hundred percent. That’s purely authentic. I just never really connected with any of the Nashville stuff. Over my entire life, I never have. For some reason, I’ve found myself in circles occasionally where that’s all there is. But this song is done with a smile on my face and most peoples’ reactions is to laugh. That’s what John Prine did, right? He talked about serious stuff, but he did it in a funny way. That’s what I hoped to do with it all. The key line in the whole thing, to me, is “Art is more than a business plan.” It gets back down to what I do and why I do what I do.
AH: Thanks for commenting on that. There are a number of artists who talk openly about not feeling a connection with a more commercial scene. I also appreciate that you bring in other genres in that song and move through them in a conversational way. It helps reframe the idea of “traditions.”
AB: Oh, yes, that song is about how I came up listening to Rock ‘n Roll music. I was part of the generation that heard Nevermind for the first time, and it changed my life. I was in my mid-twenties before I discovered Bob Dylan and Townes Van Zandt. It took me getting high-speed internet. That’s when I found out that there were these powerful things called “songs” that become so impactful. I didn’t grow up listening to Hank Williams, but I do now, and I love it.
AH: The internet has been incredibly important to me to discover new genres and traditions, too. Before you go, I want to ask about the title track, “Love in the Dark,” for the upcoming album. It’s full of wonderful images and potentially spiritual topics, though it’s not limited to a specific religious perspective. How typical is that song of the rest of the album?
AB: I have written several types of songs like that. It’s a huge part of who I am as a person. After all, I was a Baptist preacher. That song “Love in the Dark” is a prayer. I didn’t write that song outward, I wrote it upward. But it’s one of the few that I’ve written as a prayer. I think people from all different kinds of backgrounds could identify with it because it’s not so specific to myself. You could connect to it through the same type of experience. I’ve played that song a lot in my live shows and a lot of people connect to it.
Thank you for chatting with us, Abe Partridge. Find more information, music, and tour dates for Abe, here: https://www.abepartridge.com