Recorded in one summer evening in the tiny community of Haysi, Virginia, Frank Newsome's Gone Away with a Friend, due out June 29, 2018 on Free Dirt Records, is a testament to one of the oldest and deepest streams of American roots music. These unalloyed, affecting hymns, sung in the old tradition of lined out hymnody, come from the services of Kentucky and Virginia Old Regular Baptists. Living in the deep, beating heart of Appalachia, these hymns date all the way back to the British Isles, and the brutally stark way of singing them–in what has become known as the high lonesome sound–comes from there as well. If you’ve heard this sound before, it was in the voice of the great Dr. Ralph Stanley, or possibly in the mountain music of Roscoe Holcomb, both of whom grew up singing lined out Baptist hymns.
It was Stanley, in fact, who first brought Frank Newsome to the nation’s attention. Stanley attended Newsome’s services at Little David Church in Virginia, where baptisms take place in the nearby Clinch and McClure Rivers (Newsome’s been known to break holes in the rivers’ ice in the winter to conduct them). Newsome would traditionally open Stanley’s Hills of Home Festival, and it was here that renowned country artist Jim Lauderdale first encountered Newsome’s vocals. Relaying the experience to Virginia State Folklorist Jon Lohman, the two decided to set out to Newsome’s church to record these songs. They set up the microphone in the church that evening, and with coal cars rumbling by outside, they recorded Newsome unaccompanied, a rarity in this tradition of hymnody which usually features a call-and-response between the preacher and the congregation. In 2011, Frank Newsome was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship, the highest honor the government awards to traditional artists, in recognition of the great tradition he bears on his shoulders.
Born to a family of 22 children, Frank Newsome came originally from Kentucky, where the tradition of lined out hymnody is strongest. The tradition of coal mining was equally strong. Frank’s father worked as a coal miner, and Frank himself worked for 20 years in the mines, where he contracted black lung, a condition he still suffers from today. The mines were what brought Newsome to Virginia, and it was in those mines that he found his way back to God. “When you’re between two rocks,” Newsome says, “when you go under the mountain, you don’t know whether you’re going to see daylight again or not. I just began to look up and talk to the Good Lord to have mercy upon me and bless me to get out and see my family again.”
A minister since 1972, Newsome regularly leads the congregation in spirited sermons that blur the lines between speech and song. Since no instruments are mentioned in the New Testament, Old Regular Baptists eschew them and their songs are wholly a cappella. There’s no meter to their songs (beside a possible tie to the human heartbeat), and the lines of the song well up in Newsome’s voice from the sermon. The congregation joins him on each line, the melodies old and haunting, the overall feeling, however, one of joy and relief. It’s a remarkable sound, a sound out of time. But it’s made by men and women who toil long hours and whose vision of God is transportative. The art of the American folk hymn lives strong in Frank Newsome.
"There is a purity about Frank's singing that brings a soul-stirring, heart-tugging peacefulness that is beyond words." — Jim Lauderdale