Graded on a Curve:
Frank Newsome,
Gone Away with a Friend

Since 1972, Frank Newsome has been a minister in the Little David Old Regular Baptist Church, located near tiny Haysi in southwestern Virginia. As part of services, he is also a singer of uncommon richness and power, delivering his message without musical instruments in keeping with church tradition. Although Newsome received some exposure beyond Haysi through his longtime friend Dr. Ralph Stanley and was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship in 2011, Gone Away With a Friend is his first recording. Capturing him a cappella and unaccompanied in his church, the compact disc is out June 29 through Free Dirt Records. Anyone with an interest in folk and gospel traditions will want to hear it.

Gone Away With a Friend provides a rare opportunity to experience the Old Regular Baptist singing tradition. As mentioned in Christopher Koepp’s notes for the set, the only prior widely available Old Regular Baptist recordings were two early ’90s discs from Smithsonian Folkways that offered lined-out hymnody from Southeastern Kentucky. Making this collection rarer still is that with one exception, the pieces here aren’t lined-out, i.e. an individual leading a congregation in song (and as such, a relative to shape-note singing), but instead present Newsome alone.

The strength of Newsome’s voice is immediately felt, its quality made even more remarkable when considering his contraction of black lung disease after years working in the coal mines of his region; his last day underground was February 12, 1976. As vocal intensity gets seamlessly united with the conviction and indeed the utter soulfulness of Newsome’s singing, Gone Away With a Friend attains a brilliance that’s at first startling, then soothing, and ultimately life-affirming.

More so than most recorded examples of undiluted tradition, the disc registers almost entirely as an act of preservation rather than dually serving as a calling-card for an artist or group working in a niche of the vast field of Americana. It is true that Newsome would often commence the proceedings of Ralph Stanley’s Hills of Home festival (and has sung at other folklife oriented fests), but those appearances (it feels wrong to call them performances) occurred as an outgrowth of friendship and community, aspects that deeply resonate as Gone Away With a Friend plays.

If the country and Americana singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale hadn’t witnessed Newsome singing at Hills of Home, this album wouldn’t exist. Perhaps other circumstances would’ve come to pass with a Newsome recording as the byproduct, but obviously, it wouldn’t be this one. Upon seeing him on stage, Lauderdale contacted Virginia State Folklorist Jon Lohman about getting the man on tape, and they did so by traveling to his church.

And so, a field recording, and it’s important to stress that the immediate goal of Lauderdale and Lohman was simply to insure this artistry was not lost to time, rather than to quickly cut a disc and just as speedily get it into market racks. Reinforcing these intentions and the centrality of friendships struck is that these songs were documented back in 2006.

And like many field recordings, there’s a noted absence of commercial shaping; if one is looking for a bag of finessed variety, it’s best to move along. But if emotional outreach is what one’s after, this set delivers and then some, and is sure to impact listeners regardless of his or her level of belief. It’s worth noting that the Old Regular Baptists don’t seek to convert individuals to the faith; overall, Gone Away With a Friend stands not as proselytizing but as simply an expression of belief.

But even without gestures of commerciality, the disc still possesses characteristics recognizable in more streamlined product. As said, opener “When I Heard” is striking right away, and while the passion and skill don’t abate, the album’s title track (placed four songs in) is especially beautiful in its intensity. And if the refusal to adopt musical instruments connects as stubborn (and it is, but also in Koepp’s words indicative of the “integrity to live within the bounds of what seems right, regardless of the pull of the world and her fleeting fortunes.”) there are two songs here not of traditional origin that fit right in.

Specifically, they are “Go Rest High on that Mountain,” credited to Vince Gill, and “Long Black Train,” by Josh Turner, with the latter particularly superb. It’s followed by “Lined-out Hymn,” which offers a dialogue-communion of believers at Little David Church, and then the concluding prayer from Newsome. Altogether, Gone Away With a Friend is a vital serving of tradition far too seldomly heard, but in the singer’s words, it’s his way of trying to “make things a little better.” He’s speaking in relation to his church, but with this record the intention has spilled over to the world at large. Be thankful.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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