Alabama Astronaut

My sister-in-law Jacqueline comes from Virginia. She recently visited us in Ohio. And while she was here, she told me about a podcast called Alabama Astronaut. I just finished listening through all eight episodes (plus the forward and a bonus episode) — and wow! What a fascinating, fun, and hopeful jaunt through American history, music, and culture!

The hook for this series is a glimpse into the “Full-Gospel Holiness Churches” of the Southern Appalachian region of the United States. In these churches, believers incorporate snake-handling and the drinking of poisonous substances into their worship. They believe these acts to be a special sort of spiritual gift, or “anointing,” referenced in the 16th chapter of the Gospel of Mark. And while these forms of worship are certainly unique, the podcast tries to focus on the unique music that is played in these churches. Music that sometimes accompanies the snakes and the strychnine, not not always. The description from the Alabama Astronaut website does a good job of describing the podcast:

In the Pandemic Summer of 2020, singer-songwriter / visual artist Abe Partridge found what he believed to be undocumented music in a string of Holiness Churches across Appalachia. He made it his mission to attempt to properly record these songs. What transpired as he set out on this mission ended up changing his life. His dear friend, Ferrill Gibbs, produced a podcast about it.

I loved learning about these churches and their culture. And I gained some sympathy for their worldview. Their music was interesting, too. However, my admittedly-untrained ear didn’t find it to be too much different from other established genres. Gospel… Bluegrass… Rockabilly… Again, I’m not a professional musician or ethnomusicologist. So, I don’t know if I’m describing the music correctly. Or if I’m even parsing those genres correctly. Still, I recognized the general instrumentation (guitars, banjos, drums) and vocal characteristics of the music. And even if the words of the music are unique in their references to snake-handling and such, the music itself feels less unique.

As I continued to listen through the podcast, however, I discovered that it wasn’t actually about the music. It was about the musician.

The most engaging element of Alabama Astronaut was Abe Partridge. Music is a big part of Abe Partridge’s life, of course. So, it makes sense that the music was an important vehicle for storytelling. Still, the plot of the podcast is ultimately the plot of Abe Partridge’s life. His story is a story of redemption (as many of the best stories are). And it really didn’t hit me until the final episode that “Alabama Astronaut” was not a misnomer for the series (as I’d started to assume it was). It’s a reference to one of Abe Partridge’s songs: a song dealing with questions of culture, identity, and a lifelong voyage of discovery.

I won’t spoil the story too much, in case you want to check it out for yourself. But I will just confirm that he is the real star of the series. Not the snakes. Not the music. He drives the series with his curiosity, his sincerity, his empathy, and (ultimately) his faith. I’m really glad that Jacqueline introduced me to Alabama Astronaut. And I commend it you, too, if you’re looking for audio entertainment this summer.

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