The music of snake handlers...
COVID-19 hit the live music industry hard in Alabama. Full-time musicians were left with few places to play. Mobile musician and folk artist Abe Partridge had time on this hands and followed a different pursuit. He attended serpent-handling churches across Appalachia* with the goal of painting pictures of some of the pastors. That plan took an unexpected turn when he heard the music at these religious events. It was powerful and possibly not heard by outsiders. . APR Gulf coast correspondent Lynn Oldshue takes it from there…
Abe Partridge’s song “Alabama Astronaut” about pursuing things he doesn’t understand. He wrote the song before traveling alone to as many as 20 serpent-handling churches a month.
Partridge eventually shared some of the serpent-handler stories with his friend Ferrill Gibbs, a fellow musician from Mobile who had recently left a job creating podcasts about COVID for the Houston Chronicle. Partridge’s tales of serpent-handling pastors and their music gave Gibbs a new purpose.
Seeing the potential for a podcast following Partridge’s journey, Gibbs weaved hundreds of hours of taped conversations and field recordings into a nine-episode podcast they named Alabama Astronaut after Partridge’s song. Gibbs is also the host of the podcast. Partridge’s journey became a discovery of music by unknown musicians such as Cassy Coots playing songs passed down for generations. Songs telling of the signs of Mark 16 in the Bible - casting out demons, drinking poison and taking up serpents. Moved by the songs played from the heart, Partridge grabbed a field recorder and began documenting the unrecorded songs and services from a part of the South he says is slipping away.
Partridge now realizes his journey began sixteen years ago when he met Cassy Coots’ father-in-law, Jamie Coots. He was the serpent-handling preacher at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name in Middlesboro, Kentucky.
“I probably wouldn't have said it like this before, but on this side of it, I believe that God prepared me for this work,” said Partridge.
During the half-hour conversation, Jamie Coots showed Partridge his finger that was bitten by a snake.
“He talked about it in a way that wasn’t insane, but I thought it couldn’t be anything other than insanity. He was so genuinely friendly,” Partridge recalled.
Partridge never met Jamie Coots in person again. But he saw the news reports of his death from a snake bite and read about him in the book Salvation on Sand Mountain. Intrigued, Partridge began visiting churches in Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky where snakes were stored in basements or fire was held under the bare feet of a piano player. One of the pastors featured in the podcast is Pastor Chris Wolford. He preaches at the House of the Lord Jesus in southern West Virginia.
Despite a lifetime singing hymns, Partridge had never heard the songs played at serpent-handling churches. He couldn’t find the lyrics on the Internet. Partridge explained to Gibbs why the idea of capturing these songs consumed him.
“They were never trained in this. Most of the time they don’t look at the audience. They sing where they are or look at the ceiling singing to God. They are doing it in a soulful way.
Engineering and recording an album was another first in Gibbs’ journey with Partridge. With more than 500 hours of recordings that took up eight hard drives, Gibbs worked on the podcast six days a week for two years while assembling the pieces of a story that was happening in real-time.
“We worked on nine episodes for two years. It averaged about two months per episode. It was a ton of work, but we just really honed in on every single word because of the story and all of the people who were involved. It was very fragile and we wanted to do it right and make sure that it was accurate and fair to both sides,” Gibbs observed.
As Partridge continues his work of capturing songs of the serpent handlers, the churches are becoming places of friendship where he feels at home, and with more than 10,000 downloads, the Alabama Astronaut podcast is taking off. There will be a second series of the podcast plus an art book and exhibit of Partridge’s paintings of the serpent-handlers that opens in January at the Alabama Contemporary Art Center in Mobile. There will even be music from the serpent-handlers themselves.