I park my car in the lot across the street. It’s not necessarily a bad part of town, but I look around for lurkers who might be waiting to knock me in the head and take my money. I see a guy in the parking lot on his phone. He doesn’t seem threatening so I approach him and ask if it’s ok to park in the lot. He’s wearing a Yarmulke. Not that that means anything. He shrugs his shoulders and says in some kind of European accent, I don’t know. It’s my first time here. Mine, too, I think to myself. I make sure my car is locked and walk across the street, again looking right and left. I open the door and go inside.
It’s a Tuesday night at The Empty Glass, a bar in the capitol city of Charleston, West Virginia. It has a reputation as a musician’s venue. Every Sunday night performers from Mountain Stage, the national radio show broadcast from Charleston, come to the Glass, as it is known locally, to play late into the night after Mountain Stage. The Glass is nothing fancy. It has a generous stage and a good sound system, but it’s still just a bar. By the time the music starts this evening, there are maybe ten people in the place.
I get a beer and make my way to one of the two long tables in front of the stage. It’s just me at the table, and two ladies seated in front of me. Now this may seem like an unfair stereotype, but the two ladies don’t seem like regular bar patrons. One looks to be 60-ish, the other maybe a little younger, and they look like they may have decided to skip Wheel of Fortune and go out for a drink.
It’s singer-songwriter night. Three performers, alternating, will sing songs they have written. At least that’s the intention. First is Katie Ann, a talented musician and singer, who on this night, accompanies herself with a ukulele. She sings an upbeat, happy song, and she garners generous applause.
Next was James. James Townsend.
James is a big guy, and his presence alone demands attention. But even though he occupies center stage on this night, he has an unassuming air about him. He just looks like a nice guy. He tells the audience that he mainly writes sad songs and he teases Katie Ann about her propensity to play happy ukulele songs. He’ll be a good balance, he says. His banter is genuine, not forced. Affable is the word that comes to mind.
His first song is one that I’ve heard a dozen times. Ring of Holy Fire. Inspired, he says by a dream he had after falling asleep at work. Spreadsheets will do that to you. In his dream, he was taken up to heaven where he encountered one famous dead musician after another. Jerry Garcia. Johnny Cash. John Lennon. It’s a song of strong wit with touches of humor. But it’s not camp, it’s not farce, it’s not comedy. It’s a damn good song. I watch the two ladies in front of me. As the song unfolds, they exchange glances and smiles, nodding in that unspoken language that says they both are really enjoying the song. They are discovering what I already know: James and his music are special.
I first met James at Coal River Coffee Company in St. Albans. He wasn’t playing, he was standing in line for a cup of coffee. He has been playing music for most of his forty-some years, but that day, I had no idea he was a musician.
James will stand in front of things and have his picture taken. In fact, he has a Facebook page, James Standing In Front of Things. Stores. Signs. Landmarks. He was featured on the news for standing in front of things. That’s how I recognized him in the coffee shop that day. In the course of our conversation, I learned that he was a singer-songwriter. As a guitar player myself and a lover of music, I was pleased to meet and get to know a real musician.
Stephan Cotter is next. One of the most creative guitar players I’ve ever heard. He’s an entertaining performer and is fun to watch. Just a friendly, fun guy.
Katie Ann plays another song. And then it’s James again.
First a bluesy intro. You think he’s going to keep it going and sing about how bad things are. But no. He changes gear. Strumming in toe-tapping four/four time.
Well I grew up in a trailer
went to school with lawyers’ kids
I didn’t hate you for being an asshole
I hated you for being rich
The song is Rich Man’s Game. Not a sad song, but one with a little anger. Sometimes he cleans it up to be family-friendly, and asshole becomes bully. Not tonight. He’s playing a bar, after all. And not just any bar. The Empty Glass, where, if you’re a real musician, you have to be honest.
We had three cars in the driveway
One drove like a charm
We used the other two for spare parts
And I prayed the muffler stayed on
And after two verses, James is the underdog. It’s about as honest as you can get.
It’s a shame
Playing the rich man’s game
Ain’t got no money to my name
Don’t got to sign it all away
It’s a catchy chorus and the two ladies are loving it. Again, I’ve heard the song a dozen times and it’s one of my favorites. He plays it with his band, Bread and Circus, and they really rock it out. One night at more upscale bar, the band brought the house down.
The song is autobiographical. James grew up in Charleston and attended George Washington High School, the school that West Virginia’s favorite daughter, Jennifer Garner, attended. Students from varying economic backgrounds attend GW. But let’s just say it straight. There are rich kids and there are poor kids, and plenty in between. The rich families live in the hills – South Hills to be specific – while those without money tended live down in the hollows. Or hollers, to use the proper vernacular. The Davis Creek area. And so there were hillers and creekers. But that terminology apparently came later. In James’ day, there were preps, creekers, and freaks. Though technically a creeker, he fit in more with the freaks. That will happen when you march to your own beat.
Not that James and his family were dirt poor. His father worked hard to give the family what they needed. The basics. And if James needed a guitar, well, his dad would find a way.
Well the rich folk lived above me
And that ain’t a metaphor
I literally lived down in a holler
I could see them up from my front porch
One summer I needed a new guitar
So my daddy worked overtime
Spending all his hard-earned money
So I could practice keeping time
James first foray into music was a lark. He needed to take an elective class in junior high and decided on band, even though he had never played an instrument. When asked what instrument he wanted to play, he said trombone, assuming they would teach him. But they didn’t, of course. He muddled through by watching the other trombone players and learned that a certain position on the slide corresponded to a certain note. He got by, and he credits that method of learning for enabling him to pick up songs quickly on the fly. When he got to high school he gave up the trombone in favor of the guitar. And he began writing songs.
His father was not a musician but enjoyed music. And loved what James was doing. He’d go to the music stores with him and tinker with the gear. And when he saw James looking at a particular guitar or amp, he set out to make sure James had what he needed.
His dad was a concrete finisher. Hard, back-breaking work. He went wherever the work was, including a stint in Arizona. But money was always tight, so to give James what he needed, like the song says, he worked overtime. He’d take a job pouring someone’s driveway or whatever he needed to do to get the extra cash for that guitar.
His father died a little more than ten years ago. Like most men, James and his father didn’t often express outwardly what anybody else could clearly see. The love of father and son. There’s another song James wrote, The Twist. The Chubby Checker song was a favorite of his father’s. Even in his last days.
It’s 2010 and dad has three months more
Before the cancer in his body closes the door
And I’m playing his favorite song
But on days when it’s quiet I can hear the faint tones
Now he’s gone and I’m left alone
But I hear his favorite song
Come on baby, let’s do the twist.
Back at the Glass, James is finishing up his second song. He seems to have reached detente with the eternal struggle between the haves and have nots, though the gross inequity of the world today still bothers him greatly.
You know in the end I guess the rich folks
They got problems of their own
Like choosing which side of the plate
To put their salad fork on
And whether that salad fork
Is gonna be made out of ivory
Or some exotic turtle bone
Times are hard for all of us I guess
The two ladies at the table applaud with enthusiasm. Another round of songs passes and then Katie Ann sings a cover, a song written by someone else. When it’s James’ turn again, he says that since Katie Ann broke the ice, he would also do a cover. He mentions Leonard Cohen. And I know what’s coming. He names the song. Hallelujah.
One of the ladies in front of me becomes visibly excited. I lean forward and tell her, wait until you hear this.
Hallelujah is a great song. Not a religious song, as many people think, but a song that reflects Cohen’s own spiritual journey. It’s also a song that’s been done to death. Most covers of Hallelujah are unremarkable. But when James sings it, it comes alive. Every time I hear him sing it – every time – I get literal chills. It’s a long song, but early on, you hear the power of James’ voice. You don’t just hear the emotion, you feel it.
It’s one of the few covers James sings. You should hear him to do Uptown Funk. He prefers to do his own songs. As he noted earlier, most of his songs are not upbeat. He’ll say sad, but that’s not really accurate. They’re thoughtful stories about life, and sometimes life’s a bitch.
I recently played at an open mic at a local restaurant. James was there as well. At first the crowd was subdued, but as the night wore on and the beer flowed, the crowd became more lively. Near the end of the evening, the whooping and hollering almost demanded the rowdy beer-drinking songs. It can be fun, but that’s not what James’ music is about.
James is well into Hallelujah and his powerful voice is filling the room as he roars the chorus.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hal-le-lu-jah!
One of the women shows her arm to her friends. Goosebumps, she says. I know the feeling.
When I first heard James sing and when I first heard his songs, I was floored. But I’ve heard him so many times that that first feeling of being star-struck has worn off a little. But when I hear him in this little bar and watch the reaction of the two ladies, I’m reminded of how special he really is, and I leave The Empty Glass with renewed admiration. I wonder what the guy with the Yarmulke thought. I look around, but he’s gone. Too bad. More people need to hear James. His music is good for the soul.
A couple of weeks later there was another open mic in St. Albans. It was a warm summer night and the music moved out to the sidewalk. This time James is joined by Makenna Hope. You’ll hear more about Makenna Hope next time. For now, listen to the clip for a little impromptu magic.
copyright 2022, joseph e bird