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Photograph by Eli Bartlett
Photograph by Eli Bartlett

The Book of Abraham

Alabama musician, painter, and podcaster Abe Partridge talks about snake-handling — and faith, forgiveness, and how to reach an understanding with people you’ve written off.

“It’s very real. There’s fangs….”

Abe Partridge pauses, looking for the right words to describe his recent encounter with the serpent-handling faith. The encounter caused him, a critically acclaimed singer-songwriter and folk artist who had long ago left his calling as a Baptist preacher, to spend two years traveling, documenting, and then producing an eight-episode podcast called “Alabama Astronaut” about the people, practices, and especially the music of these ill-regarded Appalachian congregations. Abe squints in concentration and says, “It’s hard for me to talk to you about this because you’ve never been. If you had been, we would be able to talk in a way that I don’t sound crazy. I’m always fearful I’m gonna sound like some kind of idiot…,” and he pauses again, an epiphany flashing across his face.

“Did you ever go to a punk show that you wanted to jump around in?”

“I’ve jumped around in punk shows,” I answer.

“Yeah. Why did you?”

My turn to pause. “Felt compelled to.”

“That’s it. Yeah. That’s it.” Abe smiles.

~~~

I was 17 when I went to my first punk-rock show. It was 1989, and the Vomit Spots, a band from Mobile, was playing up in Birmingham in a little club, the name of which I can’t remember. It was a cramped space. The stage was barely a six-inch riser, and the mosh pit was almost the entire room. I got sucked into the vortex of elbows and boots and rib cages and fists and sweat and yells and smiles and snarls and blood and teeth, a stomping, mashing whirlwind as the drummer pounded and the guitarist and bass player slashed and gnashed at their instruments and the lead singer screamed in melodic rapid-fire verse while pogoing back and forth on the small stage. At the end of the night, I was bruised but exhilarated, a different kid than I’d been on the front side of the evening.

~~~

And I forget just why I taste.
Oh yeah, I guess it makes me smile.
I found it hard, it’s hard to find,
Oh well, whatever, never mind.

— Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” 1991

When Abe was 12, he heard Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the radio in his dad’s car. During a recent conversation Abe and I had in his house in a little neighborhood tucked in between cotton fields turned muddy and brown in what passes for the coming of winter in southwest Alabama, he tells me hearing that song “was almost a sacred experience for me. It was the very first time I remember music ever making sense to me. I remember hearing Michael Jackson and Paula Abdul and stuff like that. I didn’t give a damn about all that stuff. But then, when I heard Nirvana, I was like, oh my God. It moved me in a way and it felt like I could identify with it.”

While 12-year-old Abe was riding around west Mobile in his dad’s car having his life changed by Kurt Cobain, I was a scholarship kid at Spring Hill College, a Jesuit school a handful of miles away from him. I’d gone down there from my hometown of Selma. It was a good school, and they didn’t care that I wasn’t Catholic, or that I wasn’t particularly religious at all, disenchanted with the Episcopal church I’d grown up in, antagonistic toward more conservative denominations like the Baptist church a girlfriend had taken me to, where the pastor had preached a sermon on the evils of rock music and men with long hair.

Five years later, when Abe was 17, he had what he describes as a “religious experience.”

“Honestly, man,” he says, “I was just wayward and didn’t know what the hell I was doing. And I ended up walking into this independent fundamental Baptist church, and the guy seemed totally stable, and he had answers, and I was like, yeah, this is it.” Abe went to a series of bible colleges, getting kicked out of each and trying again. “You had to get rid of all your secular music to go to school there. And I was sneaking music, and I got demerits ’cause they found a Pearl Jam tape or something. God forbid.” But the fourth bible college was the charm. “I was very much buying in during that time, buying into the system. I began to — rock ’n’ roll, punk rock, all that stuff that I loved so much — I had to put it away.”

"I ended up walking into this independent fundamental Baptist church, and the guy seemed totally stable, and he had answers, and I was like, yeah, this is it.”

~~~

Photograph by Eli Bartlett
Photograph by Eli Bartlett

And I even stole a little space-traveling cart.
I put it out in the barn.
Me and Bubba painted it camouflage,
And we’re about to embark
As an interstellar white-trash Lewis and Clark.
We’re gonna call ourselves the Alabama Astronauts.

— Abe Partridge, “Alabama Astronauts,” 2020

When I drive over from New Orleans with my photographer son to meet Abe, he is out the front door before we even have our car doors open, a big smile on his face, as open and inviting a presence as you can imagine. When he says, “Hey, buddy, good to see you, come on in,” I feel like he means it, that we already are buddies even though we’d only exchanged a few emails, and that we truly are welcome in his home.

We follow Abe through to the kitchen, where his wife, Cathy, is putting together a lunch of stir-fried chicken and sauteed brussels sprouts. I put the pecan pie we’d brought with us on the counter (never arrive at someone’s home empty-handed when they’re cooking lunch for you), and then Abe leads us into the family room, which feels a little like a church, or at least a church of art. Cathy has lined up some 40 of Abe’s recent paintings around the walls or leaning against the furniture. These paintings are going to be the subject of an exhibition at the Alabama Contemporary Art Center in downtown Mobile in early 2023, called “With Signs Following.”

Abe has steadily gained a following for his folk-art paintings. His work in the “With Signs Following” exhibition is primarily acrylic paint and roofing tar on wood — bright colors and exaggerated figures with symbological embellishments throughout. The exhibition will feature over 40 of Abe’s pieces, all focusing on stories, people, and communities in Appalachian serpent-handling congregations. It also will include work by Jimmy Morrow, a folk artist and pastor of the Edwina Church of God in Jesus Christ’s Name near Del Rio, Tennessee, and by Anthony Feyer, a New York-based artist who had previously focused on the serpent-handling community once led by Dewey Chafin at the Church of the Lord Jesus in Jolo, West Virginia.

Abe painted the “With Signs Following” series as part of an art-book project (the book will come out with the ACAC show), documenting in stories and paintings the people he met on a series of journeys seeking out and recording the music of the serpent-handling churches of Appalachia. This project led to the “Alabama Astronaut” podcast, hosted by Ferrill Gibbs and featuring Abe. The art exhibit opens a week from today, but will officially kick off with an artist’s reception on January 21, with Abe singing some of his songs, joined by musicians he met on his treks through Appalachia, and being interviewed by Ferrill for what will end up as a live bonus episode of the podcast.

~~~

Abe's paintings, readied for their current exhibition at the Alabama Contemporary Arts Center in Mobile (photograph by Eli Bartlett).
Abe's paintings, readied for their current exhibition at the Alabama Contemporary Arts Center in Mobile (photograph by Eli Bartlett).

The best mosh pit I was ever in, the most transcendent, was August 18, 1991, at Lakewood Amphitheater in Atlanta. Jane’s Addiction was anchoring the first Lollapalooza touring festival. By evening, out on the lawn behind the reserved seating, everyone’s nicely set-out blankets had become ragged and dirty from the crowd’s dancing throughout the hot afternoon to the Rollins Band, the Butthole Surfers, Body Count, Nine Inch Nails, and Living Colour. At twilight, Siouxsie and the Banshees had shifted moods into the surreal and communal. Those ragged blankets had been gathered with discarded items of clothing and trash into piles, ready to ignite. When Jane’s Addiction started up, those piles were lit, and we all whirled around the fires, like pilgrims at their night’s encampment. Jane’s long song/saga, “Three Days,” propelled the circling eddies of people. There were the elbows, the fists, the clashing, bruising bodies, but as in the best of pits, when it became too rough and a dancer fell to the ground, hands would clutch them and lift them up again, or ease them to the outside of the circle, before they were trampled underfoot. There was a common purpose, a communion, a coming together. There was chaos, but not violence. These were human fractals, expressions of an ideal in that hot Georgia night. Something to be part of.

~~~

“This is not a podcast about religion. It is not a podcast about the five signs of Mark 16, of handling serpents, drinking poisonous substances, or other acts of great faith. This is a podcast about songs, songs of them that believe the signs, that have never taken their rightful place on the shelves of Americana.”

— Preface to "Alabama Astronaut," episode 2, “Brush Arbor”

Abe is a songwriter, musician, visual artist, and now a podcaster. But he isn’t a preacher and hasn’t been one for a very long time. After graduating from that fourth bible college, he and Cathy were living in North Georgia raising two children, scraping by, when he had to decide whether to accept the call to pastor Bright Star Baptist Church, a little building up a mountainside across the railroad tracks behind the First Apostolic Church in the coal-mining Appalachian town of Middlesboro, Kentucky. A historical marker in downtown Middlesboro notes, “Sometime over the past 300 million years, the impact of a meteorite in the heights of the Appalachian Mountains formed a circular basin approximately three miles in diameter in which the city of Middlesboro was built in 1869.”

Abe was 25 when he got the call.

“So I prayed about this for a couple of weeks,” he says. Their home then was a single-wide trailer in a holler in north Georgia, in the middle of about 70 acres of Georgia Power pulpwood land. “I used to just walk in the woods for hours. And that’s where I would pray. One day I came (into the woods), and I had a Bible. I set it out on my lap, and it opened to Deuteronomy, chapter 11, which is not really where you go in the Bible if you’re looking for direction. It’s just a bunch of Old Testament laws. And the first place my eyes landed — this is the only time this has ever happened to me in my whole life, and it’s spooky as hell — but I looked down at my Bible, and it said, ‘The land you are to take possession of is a land of mountains and valleys that drinks rain from heaven.’ And now, Middlesboro is built in a bowl, that meteorite crater, and you can stand in the middle of Middlesboro and do a 360, and you’re surrounded by ridges. And every time it rains there, it floods. So I was going to possess those hills and valleys.” He told them he’d take the church.

Abe lost most of the congregation again after admonishing a church member about his romantic relationship with his niece. “I split the church, buddy. I ran them off again. We went back to nearly zero,” Abe says. “And that’s when I met Jamie Coots.”

 

But Abe’s calling to pastor the congregation in Middlesboro was ill-fated. After losing most of the congregation after a disagreement with the church’s Sunday School teacher about decorum, then slowly rebuilding the congregation through tireless door-to-door evangelizing and word-of-mouth about his preaching, Abe lost most of the congregation again after admonishing a church member about his romantic relationship with his niece.

“I split the church, buddy. I ran them off again. We went back to nearly zero,” Abe tells me. “And that’s when I met Jamie Coots.”

When Abe lost the congregation a second time, he describes the place he was in as “the darkest period of my whole life.” He was trying to evangelize new members, and at the same time he and his family were struggling to get by. Pastors in independent fundamentalist Baptist churches, or at least in the branch of the church Abe was part of, do not get paid by their congregations when they answer the call, but have to make a living from other jobs.

“This was all the while working the job making eight bucks an hour or something, right? Starving,” Abe says. “And we couldn’t ever pay the bills. There’s not a lot of opportunity up there to do anything except starve, really.” And on one of those starving, evangelizing days, Abe ran into another preacher on the streets of Middlesboro: Jamie Coots, pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus’ Name, a serpent-handling congregation in town.

“In that encounter, I was struggling, man. I was struggling and Jamie knew I was struggling. He could sense it. It was like I needed somebody to be there for me,” Abe says.

“Just to be accepting and kind,” I offer.

“That was all I needed, dude. But at the same time, I’m doing things that surface-level people would’ve been immediately, oh screw this guy. I’m out there, Bible in my hand. But I was broken and hurting and needed a freaking shoulder to cry on. That’s what I needed. And if I would’ve let him, that’s what he would’ve been. But he knew I was hurting. Jamie said, ‘Tell me about what’s going on. Tell me, talk to me.’ He was so gracious and kind and gave me his phone number.”

“Did you call him?”

“By this time, I was like, dude, the guy handles serpents. I’m not calling this guy. This guy’s crazy. But his kindness was undeniable.”

The late snake-handling pastor Jamie Coots
The late snake-handling pastor Jamie Coots

In this darkest time of Abe’s life, he also began to write songs and to paint. In his bible-college days, after he got rid of all of his secular music, he discovered gospel bluegrass and noticed the nonexistent boundary between gospel bluegrass and straight bluegrass.

“I mean, Bill Monroe has got albums where he’s singing about sleeping with another man’s wife, and then he goes into ‘Jesus, Hold My Hand,’ and it’s the next song on the record. And so, I became enthralled with old bluegrass, which led me to the Stanley Brothers, who became my favorite. I immersed myself. I went to a pawn shop, and I bought a banjo because I wanted to play Earl Scruggs. I taught myself how to play and then I started playing music.”

Abe also taught himself to play the guitar, and he would play and Cathy would join him in singing as part of their church services. When he hit his dark period in 2006 and 2007, he started watching videos of the banjo player Roscoe Holcomb.

“And then one day, while I was watching videos of Roscoe, I saw this young Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival. And I thought, oh my God, this is amazing. And then if you go down that rabbit hole on the internet in 2007, you end up with John Prine and Guy Clark and Townes.

“And I’m literally in the darkest hole of my life. And I remember the first time I heard Townes Van Zandt singing ‘Waiting Around to Die’ — it moved me to tears. I started trying to write, and then I started painting as well. I actually bought a little four-track recorder, and that’s where I started trying to write songs. I went to Wal-Mart, bought some paints. That’s where I started trying to paint and started trying to figure it all out, because that was my outlet.”

“All my friends were preachers, and they don’t have help groups for struggling Baptist preachers. There was no room to talk about it. The art was my only outlet. I needed to find a way of self-expression, because the only thing I knew how to do was preach, and I couldn’t preach about this.”

 

I ask Abe what drove him to find these art forms.

“It was something about starting from having nothing,” he says. “I paint on anything. Just a white piece of paper or a black, tarred-up board. And then when you’re done, and it’s not that anymore, it’s extremely gratifying. It elevates me. Whenever I’ve created something and I look down and it moves me, then it’s incredible.”

“But why did you start then?” I ask him. “Why Middlesboro in this dark part of your life?”

“All my friends were preachers, and they don’t have help groups for struggling Baptist preachers. I mean, you take your cross and you die in the field, you know? Go to your church and you buy your cemetery plot, and that’s what you do. And so, I couldn’t talk about it. There was no room to talk about it. The art was my only outlet. I needed to find a way of self-expression, because the only thing I knew how to do was preach, and I couldn’t preach about this.”

~~~

Writer Tad Barlett and Abe Partridge in Abe's home outside Mobile (photograph by Eli Bartlett).
Writer Tad Barlett and Abe Partridge in Abe's home outside Mobile (photograph by Eli Bartlett).

The last time I was in a mosh pit was April 8, 1994, the day Kurt Cobain’s body was found in his greenhouse, the shotgun he’d used to kill himself three days earlier lying by his side. That night, a group of us drove from Mobile over to Biloxi, where the Smashing Pumpkins were playing a show at Gulf Coast Coliseum. For the first 10 minutes, we tried to commune in the fray of the pit, but there was no community there, only pain. People were trying to hurt each other. There was no helping up, only pushing down. There was no kind glimmer in people’s eyes, only a cold, reptilian emptiness. Each of us, one by one, retreated to the seats that surrounded the general admission pit. That was it.

~~~

You can’t depend on any churches
Unless there’s real estate you want to buy.
You can’t depend on a lot of things.
You need a busload of faith to get by.

— Lou Reed, “Busload of Faith,” 1989

Abe and Cathy left the church and then left Middlesboro, with guitar and banjo and paints in hand. He tried to make another go at an independent fundamental Baptist church closer to home, in Semmes, Alabama, just outside of Mobile, but it didn’t go any better.

“Due to my actions, I was treated as if I was an apostate or something. I had crossed the line.” But it was more than apostacy; it was a crisis of faith altogether. “This stuff had begun to crumble in my head anyway,” Abe says now.

He joined the Air Force in 2007. In 2013 and 2014, stationed at Al-Udeid Air Force base in Qatar, he served in support of both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. While there, he wrote a ballad, “Undisclosed Location in Southwest Asia Killing Floor Blues,” which functions on two levels of self-reflection — a national foreign-policy reckoning with the wars we wage, and a personal reckoning with his detachment from the things he had believed in when he was younger:

"I’ve never worked a job that I liked, ever. Not one single job.  But as a musician? I have shows a lot of times that to me are just as spiritually potent as any church service I was ever preacher at.”

 

… And the bombs keep a’fallin’
From those undertakers in the sky.
And I think about my babies —
When I left ’em, they were cryin’.
And I know I will never believe
Everything that I believed before,
’Cause I can’t even tell the difference
Between a prison and this war.
And there might’ve been a time
When it was all right to say God bless you,
But I’m afraid that time is no more.
… I’ve done stared this devil down,
And I’m starting to realize
That the good guys and the bad guys—
We ain’t so easily defined.

In a July 2018 performance of “Killing Floor Blues” at the iconic Bluebird Café in Nashville, Abe told the audience, about his time in the desert, “I told the Lord that, if he let me come home, I’d start playing my songs.” And, though he’d been writing songs and painting since 2007, he only started singing his music to audiences in 2016, his voice like that of an Alabama cotton-field Tom Waits. He had his first art show in 2018.

“When I started singing,” Abe says, “I always thought, man, if I could just make enough money to where I didn’t have to go to work every day, that would be it. And I made it in March of 2019. Even through the pandemic, we survived. I’m really fortunate, and I get up every day thankful to God for the people who listen to my songs and look at my art and want to have it in their homes. That’s unbelievable to me.”

I ask him, “What is it that makes artists feel that way, that makes us want that thing so bad, to the exclusion of any other path?”

“I will tell you this. I’ve never worked a job that I liked, ever. Not one single job. And I’ve probably had over a dozen — shoot, no, I probably had damn near 20, maybe even 30 of them since I was 14. And I hated every job I ever had. I never liked any of them, buddy. But as a musician? I have shows a lot of times that to me are just as spiritually potent as any church service I was ever preacher at.”

~~~

Abe's guitar and banjo (photograph by Eli Bartlett)
Abe's guitar and banjo (photograph by Eli Bartlett)

And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. … And they went forth, and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following.

— Mark 16:17, 18, 20

In 2014, not long after returning from Qatar, Abe saw a news report that Jamie Coots, the preacher who had been there for him on the streets of Middlesboro in his darkest hour, had died from a rattlesnake bite during a church service. He remembered that afternoon with Jamie in 2006, and remarked to the Air Force buddy he was sitting with as he watched the report that Jamie wasn’t the way they were talking about him on the TV, as if he were some fringe freak who had met a deserved and absurd end. “I told him ‘No, man. He wasn’t a bad guy.” But then Abe moved on.

At the beginning of the pandemic lock-down in 2020, Abe was reading “Salvation on Sand Mountain,” Dennis Covington’s narrative surrounding the attempted murder trial of serpent-handling preacher Glenn Summerford at the Church of Jesus With Signs Following outside of Scottsboro, Alabama, and there was another reference to Jamie Coots. This time Abe’s memories of Jamie wouldn’t let him go, and he resolved to drive up to the Coots family church in Middlesboro to visit Jamie’s son, Cody Coots, who for a time had taken over as pastor after his father died.

"The thought of God at times would make me extremely frustrated. Just the thought of it. But not now. Because now I get to see a whole picture."

 

“It coincided with the world falling apart,” Abe says. “And I hadn’t been to church in any serious way since 2008. I think I’d gone to church maybe four or five times in 12 years — and even then it wasn’t because I wanted to be there, but because I needed to be there for my family or something like that, Easter or something. So that’s why I went up to the Coots church. I was gonna go see what all that was about. I found three of those churches on that weekend. Went to Rock House up on Sand Mountain. I went to the Coots’ church in Middlesboro, and then I went to Jimmy Morrow’s on Sunday.

“When I was at the Coots’ church, Cassy Coots, Cody’s wife, was up there singing ‘It’s All Right With Me, Lord, If It’s All Right With You.’ And man, this is a beautiful song. So I’m listening, and I’m trying not to let them see that I’m writing down the words.” Abe leans in and laughs, miming writing down lyrics on a little pad of paper. “And there’s snakes and fire and all this kind of stuff. I get home and I sit down, start typing all this stuff in, to search for a copy of that song, and I can’t find nothing. Nothing.”

Cassy and Cody Coots
Cassy and Cody Coots

If you’ve listened to the “Alabama Astronaut” podcast, you know all that followed. How Abe’s first trip to see what it was all about became a quest to catch an undocumented segment of Americana before it disappears. And how that quest morphed yet again into a mission to “create a document,” to honor new friends who had accepted him with open hearts, a project that became the “Coots Duo” album, a recording of 10 songs by Cody and Cassy Coots. As I talk with Abe, he recounts one of the incidents covered in the podcast, from his first visit to the Coots’ church.

“Cody came up to me that first night, where I was sitting in the back. He didn’t know me from Adam,” Abe says. “He came back and said to me, ‘God told me that you’re looking for answers, and he’s going to show them to you.’ And I was like, ‘OK, thanks.’”

“Did you figure out what those questions were or what that answer was?” I ask.

“About seven or eight months ago, it occurred to me. Before I ever went to Middlesboro in the beginning, I had prayed fervently and I’d walked with God as honest as I knew how. And I read that Deuteronomy 11, and I was convinced I was going to possess that land. And I got to Middlesboro, and I thought God abandoned me. I felt like I was left in the field. And when I left Middlesboro, faith had waxed and waned. It was a very hard thing for me to think about, much less speak about, then. But now, through this podcast journey, it was the answer to so many questions I had. ’Cause now I know that if all of that would not have taken place in my life, it wouldn’t have brought me back there. You wouldn’t be sitting here right now.”

Abe smiles again, a smile that includes all within his presence.

“And this wonderful podcast that I’m very proud of, it’s brought respect and understanding to the people who have never been afforded respect and understanding before. And I’m really happy to have been a part of that. It’s tied up so many loose ends.”

“Almost freaky, really?”

“Yes! The thought of God at times would make me extremely frustrated. Just the thought of it. But not now. Because now I get to see a whole picture. Middlesboro is the hub of these snake-handling churches. Dude, little did I know. But I went right back to Middlesboro, like 12 years later, and I’m making this…” He pauses. “It’s definitely not a sermon. It’s kind of a sermon, I guess. But it’s so not the kind I would ever imagine I would try to deliver back in them days. But yeah, it was like I was prepared to do that work. It just took a long-ass time for it.”

I tell him, “There’s no real possibility you could have done that work back then, at 25.”

“Oh, hell no. No, no, no, no. Absolutely not,” Abe says.

“I look back at Tad at 25,” I say, “who thought he had answers? I’m like, that guy was really stupid. He was a dumb-ass. And now I’m worried that at 75 I’ll look back at myself at 50 and think, that guy was even stupider!”

Abe laughs. “With any luck, you will. Because if you didn’t, then you wouldn’t be growing every day. You’d be like concrete, just set up.”

~~~

Everybody wants to go to heaven.
Everybody wants to go to heaven.
Everybody wants to go to heaven.
Do you wonder if heaven is true?

— Love & Rockets, “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven,” 1987

Talking about religion, and about faith, makes me uncomfortable, even though I feel very comfortable in my faith. Those Jesuits did the trick on me, showing me a faith that was dedicated to finding the deep questions of existence and digging in, and so I took on the role of a frequently dissenting, constantly questioning Catholic. But I don’t talk about it, don’t evangelize, but only try to live my faith, to engage the world around me with love, as difficult as that can be.

And other people who talk about faith can make me uncomfortable, too. I recently had a conversation with someone close to me, who’s been in a period of discernment about whether to become a Catholic deacon, and I told him how I liked what Saint Augustine — or maybe it was Athanasius — said about the Church being a community of pilgrims, all on a journey to seek some meaning or answer, but I didn’t much like the idea of finding or declaring that answer.

“Hell man,” my friend said, “all I want is the answer. I just want the answer on how to get into heaven.” Man, all power to him. I truly don’t think he’s wrong or I’m wrong. I tell Abe about this and ask him which camp he falls into, the Answer camp or the Community of Seekers camp.

“Well, at that time in my life when I was a pastor, I was most certainly with your friend on that,” he says. “I had very rigid answers for lots and lots of theological questions.”

“And your congregants, by and large, they wanted you to have those answers?”

"Having the podcast out has been incredibly liberating. I mean, I’ve actively tried not to talk about it, about faith. And I’ve tried to shake it for years. And honestly, it was through this last experience, these last two and a half years of visiting these churches to capture these songs and getting to know these people, that I find it was always there. I tried to lose it, but I couldn’t. And now it’s been rekindled."

 

“Absolutely.” Later in our conversation, Abe returns to the subject of the answers he was giving his congregants back when he was a pastor. “But I’ve uttered things in my past that I would not forgive myself for right now; I would not be able to sit in a room with my 25-year-old self. I wouldn’t be able to tolerate him. He’d be over there just spouting off a bunch of shit he didn’t even know. And look at where I’ve come, look at who I am now. I mean, you would say the same thing. You were like, wow, that 25-year-old Tad is ignorant, right?”

“You know it.”

“So we’re all on a journey of some type. You just have to go deeper, man.”

Photograph by Eli Bartlett
Photograph by Eli Bartlett

But my discomfort is not just with people proclaiming they have the answers. It’s also because many Americans wield religion as a tool to oppress and marginalize people, including many people in communities of writers and artists and musicians, including my own friends and family. I ask Abe about this, and how he confronts the justified suspicion about faith and religion that is held by the community of artists he’s a part of.

“I think it’s easier for me now, because there’s an eight-and-a-half-hour podcast,” Abe says with a smile. “But yeah, it’s so hard. I would never say I’m a ‘Christian,’ because what you think when I say that is not what I mean. And for me and you to sit here and unpack what I mean by that term, versus what you may perceive by that term — or anybody else may perceive out of that term — it’s going to be totally different. That word doesn’t mean anything anymore.”

“Not at all.”

“And so I would never dare use that term to describe myself or my faith because I think that the majority of what people would believe by me saying that is something that I detest, and I don’t want to be any part of that. So for us to even have a conversation about it requires an eight-and-a-half-hour podcast. And so as an ancillary thing that happened because of the podcast, I feel so much more free to talk about it. If you came in here and you didn’t know me from Adam and I start talking about verses out of the New Testament, you’re gonna be like…”

I interrupt him: “This is what I’ve been running away from my whole life!”

“Right, man, me, too. Me, too. But, yeah, having the podcast out has been incredibly liberating. I mean, I’ve actively tried not to talk about it, about faith. And I’ve tried to shake it for years. And honestly, it was through this last experience, these last two and a half years of visiting these churches to capture these songs and getting to know these people, that I find it was always there. I tried to lose it, but I couldn’t. And now it’s been rekindled, and I feel liberty to speak about it, where I did not feel liberty before. And the reason I didn’t is because I don’t feel any connection to the Western idea of what it is to be Christian now.

“I had this conversation with Ferrill, and I told him I think I couldn’t have had that rekindling experience anywhere else,” Abe continues, referring to his close friend who produces and hosts “Alabama Astronaut.” “To be uncomfortable with the uncomfortable and the outcast, the kind of marginalized community there in Appalachia. And the faith I saw there ruined me even further for church, especially with what the American church has stood for over the past years. The nationalism and stuff like that. Of course, they’re gonna lose people. You’re losing them because you took a stand for Jesus with the American flag and….” Abe stops himself, changes gears to really get at what’s driving him. “But I find incredible beauty and meaning in the New Testament and in the words of Jesus. And I think that so many of those words, it’s damn near impossible to experience when you’re — I mean, do rich people need God? Jesus said that himself: ‘It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the gates of heaven.’ And if there’s anything that we are in the Western world, it’s rich.”

~~~

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn
And everybody’s shouting,
Which Side Are You On?

— Bob Dylan, “Desolation Row,” 1965

I launch into a rant to Abe about this publication, Salvation South, and Chuck and Stacy Reece’s vision of creating a space for civil conversation about the things that divide us. And my rant is less a disagreement with that than it is about the tension in giving listening space to someone who utters beliefs that I may find unforgivable, beliefs that stem from hatred or fear of the Other.

“Yeah, it’s conflict,” Abe says, “a tension. But I’ll say this. Two and a half years ago, if you would’ve said, ‘Abe, some of your best friends are gonna be Holiness people in Appalachia who handle serpents,’ I’d have said I hate those people, that those people are probably a bunch of freaking nut-jobs handling snakes in the name of Jesus. I would’ve never imagined that I would have a meaningful relationship with people like that. And I’m telling you that those are some of the most important relationships in my life right now. But it came through two and a half years of intensive work on my part, constantly challenging the preconceived notions I had about them. And then to come to grips with the fact that I was wrong about a lot of things.

“I wish I would’ve recorded myself talking about them two and a half years ago, before Ferrill came along — it was bad, unconsciously treating them as Other. And then you realize, oh shit, that’s not right for me to think or feel that way about them. The next thing you know, I’m just looking at them like another human being. That’s the trick. And I didn’t even realize I wasn’t doing that, but I was. And if I’m doing that about them, who else am I doing it about? Man, people, at the end of the day, are people.”

“So, Abe,” I ask him, “are you a convert now? Are you a convert to the Holiness churches?”

“I mean, what are we talking about? Which brand of Holiness are we talking about? What does ‘Holiness’ even entail? I don’t know. I have a love and a kinship with a certain group of believers in Gray, Kentucky,” where Andrew Hamblin pastors, “and I go to church there as often as I can. I’m probably gonna go up there Saturday night, and they call me Brother Abe, and I call them brother and sister. And so I get up there and I play music. I play music for Jesus with them sometimes. And does that make me a convert? I don’t know. How many boxes do I have to check? If it means take a rattlesnake, I’m not gonna take up a rattlesnake.”

"They literally have nothing but their faith. When they wake up in the morning, that’s what they’re about. And when they go to bed at night, that’s what they’re about. And they have nothing else. They barely have what they need. And just seeing that and the importance of that in their life, it just rekindled something in me.”

 

“Right.”

“Do I believe they take up rattlesnakes out of faith and in obedience to what they believe is a command? A hundred percent. But there’s about half that congregation that ain’t never taken up a snake before. They believe it. I’m comfortable with believing it.”

Abe relates a time when he watched a serpent-handling buddy take what had been the meanest, most agitated copperhead and hold him up in church, turned “like a piece of rope dangling out of his hands,” and the revelatory impact of that incident. I ask Abe if that sort of epiphany is necessary for faith.

Abe with a guitar strap made from the skin of Old Lemonhead, a prized rattlesnake from the Coots family's church (photograph by Eli Bartlett)
Abe with a guitar strap made from the skin of Old Lemonhead, a prized rattlesnake from the Coots family's church (photograph by Eli Bartlett)

“It’s deeper than that one moment for me. What I’ve rediscovered, as far as my own faith, is just being with them. When I left the church, I removed myself from that community in a way. In another way, I was exiled, but it was kind of a mutual, agreed upon separation. But then being back with a faith community, but not just any community but that particular one, where it’s all they have. They literally have nothing but their faith. When they wake up in the morning, that’s what they’re about. And when they go to bed at night, that’s what they’re about. And they have nothing else. They barely have what they need. And just seeing that and the importance of that in their life, it just rekindled something in me.”

Abe harkens back to my earlier rant. “Like you were talking about how somebody will say something that’s unforgivable. Brother, I know what you’re talking about. I believe you. But consider this. A guy with a bottle of strychnine in one hand, a snake in the other, with a suit and tie or a pair of overalls and behind a pulpit — about two and a half years ago, that would’ve been someone who I would consider the least likely person I would find anything in common with. And I’m friends with dozens of people like that now.”

“Do you think the podcast, what you and Ferrill have put together here, can universalize that experience?” I ask him.

“I feel like I was called and prepared for the very work we’re doing now. I get messages almost every day. I mean, this podcast came out nine weeks ago and I know most all the people are not anywhere close to believing what I believe, but have found great beauty in the podcast. There’s something fundamental in the podcast that causes them to think about life and meaning and these kinds of things differently. Dude, in such a divisive world — I mean, it’s more divisive now than it has ever been in my lifetime.”

“Sure. So polarized.”

“Call it polarization or whatever you want to call it. But if we have hope, it’s in being together. Divided, we will certainly fall. And the more things that we do that create division? I’m in line with Chuck. The more things we do to create division, the further down that road we’re gonna go. I mean, I’ve lived overseas, been to places and seen what they look like when their whole society is overtaken by division. It ain’t a place you want to raise children. And if we can’t find a way to love somebody else who we may not understand….”

Abe stops mid-sentence and shakes his head.

“Is it this distinction between people wanting to proclaim the answers instead of just moving together to seek understanding?” I ask. “Almost feels to me that everybody thinks they have the answer, and their answer isn’t the same as your answer and that’s what’s causing the problems. And if we just get to a place where, as humans, we understand that there are big questions and we just accept that, share that understanding that life has mysteries, that there are questions out there to confront. And then maybe we can accept that we can come up with different answers.”

“Right, absolutely. I one hundred percent believe that. It’s just like this conversation we’re having. I’m not telling you that the serpent handlers in Gray, Kentucky, are the only group in the whole world that have the truth figured out. I’m not saying that at all. It’s where I have found faith, love, and community. But I’m certain that you could find that in a number of other places, right? If we’re just open to listening to each other and treating each other as people.”

“Faith. Love. Community,” I repeat, as I write those words in their own space on the pad of paper I’m working from as we talk.

“Let me give you an example,” Abe says, and tells me about a buddy of his from the Air Force, who is now settled close to where Abe lives. “He’s a red-hat, Make America Great good old boy, right? But we’re buddies, man. He knows what I think, and I know what he thinks, but I promise you he would do anything for me if I needed it, and I’d do it for him. It’s amazing. But man, there’s so much under the surface that goes on in people, that leads them to have certain opinions, and then they broadcast those opinions on their Facebook and all you see is the opinion. And you don’t see that this man, when he was 7 years old, was adopted by a man that molested him his whole life. And the hell he went through as a child. He was saved from that by his grandfather, who got him out of the foster care system, this old-line Mississippi conservative guy. What the hell do you think’s gonna happen to him? He’s not gonna go put on a Biden shirt — he’s gonna get on his Facebook and say, Make America Great Again. Because he was molested all his life and the only man who ever showed him love was an old-school Mississippi conservative. And to break that bond with that man would be to break the only meaningful relationship he ever had. See what I’m saying? So you can look at his Facebook, hate him, or you can learn who he is and be like, damn, I’d probably be the same way in that circumstance. The tendency is to be like, oh man, F that guy. But I’m glad I didn’t, because that guy means something to me. Now, I don’t go on his Facebook — unfollowed him on Facebook — but I can pick up this phone and call him and he answers the phone. ‘Hey buddy, how you doing?’ ‘Good.’ Because I don’t have to agree with you on everything for us to be friends.

“You see what I’m saying? I don’t have to agree with you on everything. It’s OK. Because it’s like you said, it’s a big old world, dude. At my core, I detest all that shit, all this red-hat shit. Nothing pisses me off more than Jesus is my Savior, Trump is my President. Nothing pisses me off more. To me, that is the biggest affront to the Gospel as anything that I’ve ever seen put out in the name of God. But that being said, there’s a whole series of life events and circumstances that individual went through. Sure. And if you don’t try to understand that, you’re not gonna win them over by saying…”

Here, I raise two middle fingers in the air. Abe laughs. “That never has won the argument,” I say.

“It never wins the argument, dude. And that’s got to be the conversations that we’re gonna have to have. Not just me and you.”

“Well, we agree with each other on most everything.”

"We don’t know what suffering is. And all this shit that we’re doing right now, that’s where it goes. Because eventually words turn into blows. And when the blows happen, that’s when the vulnerable suffer. The non-vulnerable will be fine, but the most vulnerable people will be the ones who pay the biggest consequence. That’s always the children.”

 

“Yeah, it’s a nice conversation and all, but it’s not the conversation that accomplishes something. We need to have those conversations with folks we don’t agree with, or we can just shoot each other, know what I mean? It could turn into Afghanistan real fast, or be Iraq, where they’ve got so many opposing groups that all hate and want to kill each other. It’s not a good place, dude. It’s terrible. And you do not want to live in a place where children suffer. It changes everything when you see a place where children suffering is the norm. Here, you’ve got to go to UAB Medical Center or something to see children truly suffering, but imagine just stepping outside your door and seeing children suffering. Tell me about how that world looks, buddy, the way a large portion of this world lives. We don’t know what suffering is. And all this shit that we’re doing right now, that’s where it goes. Because eventually words turn into blows. And when the blows happen, that’s when the vulnerable suffer. The non-vulnerable will be fine, but the most vulnerable people will be the ones who pay the biggest consequence. That’s always the children.”

~~~

Photograph by Eli Bartlett
Photograph by Eli Bartlett

Like I said, I haven’t been in a mosh pit since 1994. I’ve had so many concussions in life that, by now, it’s probably a bad idea, anyway. But I still find that magical communion generated in the presence of music when I dance in the kitchen with my daughter to Jason Isbell’s “Alabama Pines,” or when I’m sitting in a hushed theater listening to Iris Dement play “Our Town,” tears running down my cheeks. Like shared faith, whether in a mosh pit or a hushed theater, music is a communication between artist and listener, a mode of shared relationship with others around us that crosses other divides. Art, too. These are the means of expressing otherwise undescribable beliefs and connections. They are like faith in this way, or at least the kind of faith that has not eroded into performative hypocrisy, or been weaponized into judgment.

As Abe told me about his community with the serpent-handlers, “I don’t believe everything they believe, but they’re honest.” And so it is that—being honest with each other—that comes to the forefront.

Each of the episodes of the “Alabama Astronaut” podcast begins with the disclaimer that it’s not a podcast about religion or about the five signs of Mark 16, but a podcast about the music in those serpent-handling churches. But it’s not about that, either, exactly. It’s a podcast — or a sermon — about love, about empathy, and about how we can survive as people among people.

Amen. So be it.

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About the Author

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Tad Bartlett

Tad Bartlett was born in Ankara, Turkey; grew up in Selma, Alabama; and married into New Orleans. His nonfiction has been published by Salvation South, online at Oxford American, Chautauqua Literary Journal, and others, and he has had a "notable"-designated essay in Best American Essays (2017). His fiction has been published in Massachusetts Review, Carolina Quarterly, Baltimore Review, and many others. Tad is managing editor of Peauxdunque Review, and practices environmental and appellate law for the good guys.

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