Bleary Eyed Duty: The Unflinching Testimony of David Eugene Edwards
In a world where you can have a Christian version of pretty much any genre, Woven Hand's David Eugene Edwards is a real outlier because you wouldn't know where to put him if he were a secular artist.
As a friend and I wound our way towards Asheville, North Carolina, to catch a Woven Hand show, we talked a bit about Contemporary Christian music. I confessed that I didn't much care for it. Maybe it's due to my status as a pessimistic backslider, but I tend to find the music's relentless optimism tedious, and subscribe to the old cliché that Contemporary Christian musicians think about God first and the music second, much to their songs' detriment.
I told him about a Sam Phillips interview I'd heard, where she recounted getting out of her contract with a Contemporary Christian label by threatening to go public with the news that she'd had pre-marital sex. My friend told me about Michael English's fall from grace when he had an extramarital affair with another gospel singer, and its widespread ramifications within the Christian music community, which you could argue places unrealistic burdens of perfection on its artists. We talked about Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life, and how his philosophy was fueling a local megachurch that had recently opened up a large satellite location, complete with a simulcast sermon.
It was a good conversation, and throughout it, I kept going back in my head to Woven Hand's driving force, David Eugene Edwards, and realizing that his music would probably never be welcomed into the mainstream Christian music fold, despite the fact that Edwards is one of the most devout musicians performing today.
The message is certainly there, from the band's name (a reference to hands clasped in prayer) down to the songs themselves. "Down in Yon Forest", from 2004's Consider the Birds, finds Edwards singing, "Down in yon forest there stands a hall / Bells of paradise I hear them ring / It's gilded all over with purple and pall / And I love my lord Jesus above anything." "Tin Finger", from the same album, observes that "All our words rhyme with guilt tonight / The love of him is law / He bares his arms". Those are far from isolated sentiments, as Edwards' lyrics consistently document the struggles inherent in faith, the struggles caused by a body that is essentially a prison, and the struggles caused by walking through a world that's filled with unbelief. But in a world where you can have Christian rap, Christian metal, and a Christian version of pretty much any genre, Edwards is a real outlier because you really wouldn't know where to put him if he were a secular artist.
Edwards' music is notable for its density, both with Wovenhand and with his previous band, 16 Horsepower. There's a mix of Gothic spookiness, Native American rhythms, churning guitar figures, trancelike melodies, and a relentless focus. Whatever you can say about it, you can't say that he's compromising his musical vision. As he once told an interviewer, "There's beauty in music because God is the author of music. And so with that, I try to be true to the creativity of it and to make it interesting and beautiful. Or maybe confronting, or peaceful, or angry, or whatever the mood is. I try to stay true to my own creativity as well as the message."
Edwards chronicles an internal struggle and his music reflects that. His lyrics speak of God's love, but they also speak of shadows and blades. "The theme," Edwards once told The Daily Times, "has always been the depravity of man, basically, and that relationship between man and his creator, as well as all the things that go along with that." That would certainly explain songs like "White Knuckle Grip" ("We're dealing with fire either way / Driving these streets in squandered time... I'm gonna dance this town to ruins / Stood close hell fire barbed wire") or "Sparrow Falls" ("Holy king cause my skin to crawl / Away from every evil thing").
While you'd think -- after hearing his music -- that Edwards' worldview is the product of a clapboard church from deep in an Appalachian holler, he's actually a product of a colorful Colorado upbringing. Scattered through interviews are references to accompanying his grandfather, a Nazarene preacher, on his travels. His grandmother, for her part, made sure that the young Edwards attended the funerals of fellow churchgoers. Despite that strict upbringing -- or maybe because of it -- Edwards dropped out of school to pursue music, ending up in Los Angeles and working construction on Roger Corman movie sets before he ultimately formed 16 Horsepower with bassist Pascal Humbert and drummer Jean-Yves Tola (the band's core lineup would reform for 2002's Folklore after several roster changes).
16 Horsepower made some waves, but it's tempting to look back on the group as a training ground that bred the full creative powers Edwards now brings to Woven Hand. Both bands have always been essentially one-man shows, with Edwards providing the bulk of the songwriting and creative vision, but his Woven Hand efforts sound more fully realized. Maybe that's because, despite the strength of his vision, he's blessed with sympathetic bandmates.
That was evident once we made it to the Grey Eagle in Asheville and saw the band perform. From the start, it was a no-nonsense affair. No sooner had the opening band, Suttree, finished its set and we'd ordered food from the kitchen than Edwards and company were kicking things off after the shortest of soundchecks. Edwards, seated on a stool and playing either a Gretsch electric guitar or an antique banjola, rarely looked at the crowd. Instead, he sang with his eyes closed and focused on some inner place as he played driving, churning riffs and sang of redemption and doom. At one point, he used the creaking of his stool as the intro to a song, while looped drones and feedback linked other numbers.
Bassist Pascal Humbert and drummer Ordy Garrison were incredibly powerful, lending both heft and grace to Edwards' driving compositions in the absence of studio flourishes like accordions or pianos. Before long, the entire evening began to take on an almost hypnotic aspect. In the end, I'm not sure the crowd's presence was even necessary; you got the feeling that Woven Hand was playing in its own world. The usual crowd chatter and laughter often seemed like an intrusion, even during the loudest songs. Before long, though, listeners were dialed in, so much so that when the band ended one song, it was greeted with applause and then a struck silence while Edwards rooted around the stage for a capo before he could start the next song.
If you're completely in tune with Edwards' rough-hewn Biblical views, then his concerts are definitely a gift from above. But if you're not quite so devout, or come at your spirituality from a different angle, Edwards' performances have the added benefit of letting you evaluate your own beliefs as you hold them up and compare them to the lyrics you're currently hearing. When you hear him sing songs that indicate that he's given himself completely over, you have to at least react internally, whether it's a "yeah, right" or a considered "hmmmmm".
Personally, I haven't done much research or reading to find out how Edwards' beliefs inform his views on larger issues. I haven't done so because the power of Woven Hand's music comes from the personal sphere, its chronicle of one man's daily quest to maintain clarity. There's a lot to take in. Edwards' music is challenging. He might share the "My God is an awesome God" sentiment that permeates Contemporary Christian music, but Edwards maintains a sometimes chilling Old Testament edge that's anything but a soft-focus filter on the Divine. It's a mix of sound and words that leads you to try on crazy, purple-prose descriptions like "This is music for vampires who are still clinging to God" or somesuch, just to try and get a handle on it.
But it's a testament to Edwards' unique position as a Christian artist, and his aforementioned attention to what he considers a God-given gift, that even if you don't find yourself in a reflective listening mood, you can still be swept away on the music in a club or at home. In the past, he's adapted a 4th Century plainsong into the rumbling hush of "Twigs", while a medieval song led to the organ intro and nimble banjo of "Swedish Purse". His latest record, Ten Stones, is one of his strongest and most aggressive yet, following the growth that was evident through Consider the Birds and Mosaic and adding more guitar crunch. "Kicking Bird" (a true standout on the night I saw them) takes a Native American Plains Chant and gives it a thunderous, stampeding arrangement.
Surprisingly, the artist closest to Edwards (in sonic terms, at least) may be Nick Cave. Both share the same willingness to let an arrangement barrel ahead, but without ever dropping the reins. Granted, Cave's evocations of God tend towards the blasphemous, resulting in a dark sensuality, but Cave also possesses an austerity that's right in line with Edwards' own rapturous belief. In a blind taste test, at least, either one of them could have come up with confrontational lyrics like those found in "To Make a Ring" ("Listen / Judgment is not avoided by your unbelief / Your lack of fear / Nor by your prayers to any little idol here"). Like Cave, Edwards is a compelling figure, making compelling music, seemingly unhindered by worries about what anyone else might think.