The Wandering Boy: Wesley Randolph Eader’s “Of Old it Was Recorded”
Last night, under a sky full of stars, I drove the gravel back roads that lead to my grandparents’ house. I followed a barbed wire fence that vanished and reappeared in the dark fields along the road. A rusted oil well stood silent on the other side of the fence, and beyond it were trees and hills that I had explored tirelessly through youthful summers. The fence gave way to houses and garages and allotments of land that had been parceled out a few years back, breaking up a good chunk of the forest of my childhood.
It’s like that in a lot of places these days. Economies ebb and flow. Demands and resources change. Fertile towns go dry and family farms go under.
I’ve had fits of nostalgia driving those roads before, but not last night. I was listening to Wesley Randolph Eader’s album, Of Old It Was Recorded, and perhaps it gave me a sense of the eternal, and a hope that some things never pass away. Void of any sort of contemporary sheen, Eader’s songs of blood and redemption, set against gentle Appalachian melodies, are something out of time. Like the old trees that still stand among the model homes and driveways, the album is unabashedly “old-sounding” amidst a brave new world.
Eader, reflective and unassuming, has always felt like an old soul tossed into the wrong generation. Growing up the son of a pastor in a small Washington town, he fled to Portland, Oregon in his early 20s in hopes of finding some anonymity. There, in that oasis of diversity, conformity out of the question, his identity began to take shape. He found solace in the old timey music he had brushed against in trips to Tennessee. And he found a renewing of his spirit in the worshipping assemblies he met there.
It was ministry that took the Eader family to the West Coast in the first place; first to Oregon, where Wesley was born, and then to the shipping town of Kalama, Washington. Though Wesley felt the strain of expectations that most ministerial families face, he also saw the deepness of his family’s professed faith as well. He says, “I think the most memorable moments from my youth, those that impact me still today, are was when I would witness the change that occurs when people encounter the gospel for the first time”. His father would sometimes feed and open their home to the lonely Chinese shipmen, far away from home and language, who would make port in Kalama. The Eader family would tour the ships and get to know the freight workers. Wesley would witness the grit and beauty of his father’s hospitality. “I think seeing the gospel have a positive impact in peoples lives is what allows me to continue to believe in its power”.
Eader carried those ideas with him to Portland, where he began to carve out his own path of faith, experiencing God in new and unusual ways. In a small, packed room, stacks of Bibles and hymnals piled about, Wesley and his friends would pray and sing for hours; rejoicing together, struggling together, and grappling with the great Unknown together. He says, “It really felt like we were in the middle of a genuine revival”.
It was in this time of intense worship, that Eader began to take seriously the idea of gospel music. He reflects, “I had kinda told myself that all the best gospel songs/hymns had already been written…that nobody could say anything better than the great hymnists like Watts, Cowper or Crosby and no one could perform them better than guys like Johnny Cash or the Stanely Brothers”. The modern Christian music scene, much of it a repackaging of faith with radio hooks, didn’t sit well with Eader. Taking faith–that eternal idea that outweighs and outreaches everything that we know–and trying to box it up…there’s oftentimes very little honesty in something like that, and it gave him a bad taste in his mouth for gospel music.
But the more he thought about it, the more he started to wonder: Isn’t gospel music the forefather of our American music traditions? Our country and blues and folk music…weren’t they born out of the gospel tradition? When did gospel start following trends as opposed to setting them? When did it get turned around?
In that small, packed room of worship, Wesley witnessed the power that a well-written hymn can have when the poetry and theology is taken seriously again. Sometimes those old hymns get a little too embedded in our lives. Sometimes they get a little too familiar, like children’s songs. But strip those melodies down to a single guitar, strumming a few chords; put a weathered weight-of-the-world voice behind the words…and you can feel that fire again. You can’t help but sing along.
Eader’s songs are definitely imbedded in those classic traditions of gospel songwriting. He doesn’t shy away from the bloody imagery, or paper over those grand themes of resurrection and atonement. But he also writes through the lens of his own Christ-experiences; and emphasizes, first and foremost, the love of Christ.
Oh perfect love come near to me
From hatred let me part
So I can bless my enemies
With glimpses of Thy heart
The recording process was pretty modest. Recorded by Blitzen Trapper’s Eric Early, they set up a microphone in Earley’s living room. Wesley whittled his catalogue down to 10 songs, and for the next two hours, using just his voice and a guitar, they ran through them all. Afterward, Early and a few musicians added strings and other subtle instruments to fill out some of the songs.
But despite those little touches, there’s very little polish to be found on the record. Though probably not the case, the album sounds like it was recorded the old fashioned way, long before tape and digital allowed for second chances and manipulated files. There’s a lived-in feeling to it, and a delicate echo that permeates. Eader sings each song as if he’s been singing them forever…as if they were passed down like precious heirlooms, or discovered on one of A.P. Carter’s song expeditions.
And that valley may be dark
Over all the earth, extended
But the love of God is brighter
And its path cannot be bended…
Eader explains that, “We live in an age marked by anxiety and uncertainty, often burdened the past and fearful of the future…Many of us fail to find value in the present moment because we fear it will be forgotten forever, but the gospel teaches us the opposite: that the present moment is holy because it is marked by eternity”. There’s a hope there for someone like Eader, whose heart lay in centuries long past. And there’s a hope there for the rest of us nomads as well, whose attachments get swept away in the currents of progress.
I think it was that, or something close to it, that gave me a sense of comfort on my back road drive. I still walk those woods sometimes. I still climb those hills and cross those streams, moving among the tall grass and broken branches. But 1988 is gone, and so is 1938. You have to hold onto the things that last a little longer…songs and traditions and the redeeming blood of Christ.
Of Old It Was Recorded can be found at Amazon, Bandcamp, and most online retailers.
Eader, Wesley Randolph. Email interview. July, 2013.