Ben Townsend, old-time musician and overalls-uniformed Methodist preacher, lives at the bottom of a hill by a stream in Capon Bridge, WV, pop. 414, in the Eastern part of West Virginia. We met at Clifftop, the annual Appalachian string music festival at Camp Washington-Carver every August. Ben appreciated the treatment of West Virginia and small towns in our PBS film Moundsville, and invited me to come hang out in his holler some time.
That happened last week. I was on my way back from a reporting trip near Philly and made a detour through the Mountain State.
Townsend, who’s toured in Europe and Asia and lived in Los Angeles, and played in bands including Fox Hunt, Old Sledge, The Iron Leg Boys and the Hackensaw Boys, has carved out a unique creative life for himself, giving lessons, gigging out, and preaching old-time wisdom in the whitewashed wooden churches that dot the hills and valleys of Appalachia.
The 39-year-old grew up near where he lives now, and in high school, he was a guitar-playing rock musician, feasting on MTV and dreams of filmmaking pop culture glory. And he liked to party. Beer. Liquor. Coke. Heroin. Whatever was getting slung, Ben wanted a piece of the beat. Until he overdosed and almost died.
And it was through traditional Appalachian string band, or “old-time”, music, that Townsend the man found something better for his soul. There is after all, something mystic and monastic about the 45-second dance tunes string bands play over and over again like Gregorian chants.
When he was young, he said, “I thought it was hokey bullshit, and when I finally got into it, it’s what’s given me a sense of purpose and identity.” What heals suffering “is breaking through accepting who you are,” said Townsend. “The thing that saved my life is the old-time music, because that’s what’s from where I grew up.”
Old-time music “is just so much more real,” he said. “I was jamming electric guitar and 12-bar blues, and I started seeing these older guys who can really play, and I wanted to do that.” So Townsend learned from fiddle players like Dave Bing and Earl White, and banjo players like Riley Baugus and Ron Mullennex.
Thanks to Roy Knight, a Methodist elder who showed up at the hospital after Townsend’s overdose and mentored him, he also started listening to what was beating inside his own heart, and was drawn back to the faith of his fathers, and to preaching. “I thought, what other wisdom is there to learn from older people who are trying to help us,” he said.
So these days, he wears two hats, one as a musician and musical consultant, and another as a minister at two Methodist churches. He’s also a cultural critic and philosopher, and trying these days to think about how he can take his culture’s music to a wider audience .
On Saturday evening after dinner, we shared music clips. He showed me Houston rapper Tobe Nwigwe. I pulled up a clip of the 1990s French band Manau, and some stuff from my brother, Brussels-based musician Jacob Miller. All these musicians we were watching, “they found a way to bring what they’re saying about their place in a contemporary way,” Townsend told me. “That’s the nut I’ve been trying to crack. How do I bring what’s going on here into a contemporary sound.”
I accompanied Townsend on his Sunday morning rounds, to Island Hill and Bethel, both classic white-painted United Methodist churches built over a century ago.
As a pastor, he starts each service with a tune he plays on banjo or fiddle, and by asking how people are doing and what’s going on. Any joys or concerns? It’s been raining. Snow’s coming. Schools are failing and we need to build a new one.
Uniquely for preachers I’ve seen, he projects vulnerability. He talks about his own anxiety and talking to his therapist. “My therapist told me, all anxiety comes from a desire to control,” he said. “You got to let go of your preconception of what is going to be right for you. When we’re living in the future or living in the past, we are not available for God to speak through us. We are distracted by our preconceptions of what may come. Through Jesus Christ, we’re being told, God has is covered.”
Townsend read from the book of Luke: “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”
The theme of destruction and renewal is a powerful one in a state like West Virginia that’s lost so much population and employment in the last half-century. “I’ve talked to a lot of people who say we would love to come home but we just don’t know how to make it work, how to make money,” Townsend told me.
His preaching addressed the welfare state.
There are so many contradictions, he noted. “It doesn’t say anything about people who are not able to work. Another thing I know is that we’re called to not judge. We don’t know the quiet work that people are doing. There’s a lot of work that goes into a community that’s not monetarily rewarded.”
Surrounding Hampshire County, where a quarter of the population is over 65, depends on welfare payments for a substantial amount of its income, he pointed out. Hand up or hand out, said somebody. “Hand up is a big concept right now, and I think I’m behind it, and the trouble is, there’s not always enough to go around. Maybe instead of judging, how can we encourage people who aren’t working because their work isn’t compensated by the world? If we forget about monetary compensation, there are so many ways of contributing that go overlooked.”
After church, at a diner attached to a general store that sold the stuff of rural West Virginia life — pickled eggs, hardware, machine guns — we picked up our conversation.
The key to happiness is “embracing what you have in this life,” Townsend told me. “Suffering is the rejection, and the redemption is through accepting the truth of you.”
At the end of the day, he said, “suffering is the desire to be something that’s just not in the cards for you to be.”
John W. Miller
If you’d like to support Townsend’s music and ministry, you can make a donation via Paypal at @Btowns01@gmail.com or Venmo via @onemantreasure.