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Gone Away With A Friend (Free Dirt)

This is an incredible record even if it’s as if someone decided to see how many barriers could be put up to deter as many listeners as possible before they’d even heard a note.

The cover features a man who looks like a cross between a (friendly) veteran southern Baptist preacher, an old school Republican apparatchik and your Uncle Robert in his RSL annual dinner best. The songs are hymns and devotional music from the hollers, mining towns and Virginia villages, but not your bankable favourites taken to the world by the likes of O Brother Where Art Thou, just long-traditional numbers with names such as The Long Black Train and Go Rest Hight On That Mountain.

And they’re sung by Uncle Robert – ok, Frank Newsome – not only without melismatic affectations, holy roller excitements or the extra layers of deep suffering pain, but unaccompanied. As in not just without instruments but without any other voices, or even double tracking his own voice – at least until the penultimate song. One God, one voice. One quick way to scare the unholy horses, right?

Sorry record company people, it’s not going to work. Gone Away With A Friend is one of those records. One of those records a John Lomax or Harry Smith might have put down on wax 80 years ago or dug up from some dusty corner of a hamlet they found themselves in after the Studebaker broke down.

The kind that floors you immediately with its almost brutal simplicity, keeps stunning you at each turn – in part because you keep thinking, well that will probably do me, but yet you can’t stop – and lifts you out of yourself and into a state of satisfaction that can’t be mistaken for anything but pleasure.

Newsome (who, in the poetic way of these things, was a miner for years until black lung disease disabled him and left him with preaching as his outlet) is not making some stylistic choice going without instruments by the way; his branch of the Baptists believe that since there’s no mention of instruments in the New Testament their use in religious music would be sacrilegious.

Which is kinda weird but then it is religious so weird sorta goes with the territory. Much like the small town church in Virginia where this album was recorded more than a decade ago (its release now in large part down to the efforts of musician/songwriter/historian Jim Lauderdale), its resonance neither imposing itself nor amplifying the voice. It doesn’t need it as his voice is something handsome purely on its merits.

Newsome’s voice carries a sense of understanding of the message in each song that is bone deep. Whether you believe in the message or not is irrelevant; it is the conviction with which he delivers it, the truth that he feels, that translates. Firstly, in compelling you to listen, then in providing an almost hypnotic soothing, and finally, in taking you out of the now and into something joyous.

That joyousness by the way doesn’t mean happy clappy and shining faces to the sky daddy above. This really isn’t easy music for a start – one man, one voice, remember. And the tenor of the hymns are more at your tribulations and yearning for salvation end of the spectrum than your “oh thank you Jesus I am saved, hallelujah!”.

Put it this way, this will not one day feature in a Sister Act 3 or O Brother Where Art Thou Still soundtrack.

But the pleasure is in the emotional journey and the musical purity.

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