Moonshine and mountain duels

Listening to Tom Godleski’s Fresh Preserves is kind of like being invited to browse a friend’s weathered photo album or watch his old home movies. It’s the same intimacy but without the obligation—Godleski’s ballads, spun from the tales told to him by family members, are actually interesting.

Grampy and Granny were tough: Above, Buncombe Turnpike frontman Tom Godleski’s grandparents stand in front of the home where he grew up.

“That family was full of material,” says Godleski, whose songs include tales of dueling and running moonshine. An Asheville native (his grandfather bought the Emma land the family still lives on for $1,500 in 1944), Godleski captures a certain mountain spirit in his stories. “They were tough.”

With his band Buncombe Turnpike, Godleski will tell those tales—some funny, some reverent, some harrowing—in traditional bluegrass style at Canton’s Colonial Theatre this week. Godleski (also a teaching assistant at Asheville’s Claxton Elementary School, a woodworker and a small businessman) says he’ll tell stories and “cut up with the crowd”—perhaps the kind of warming wintertime entertainment that February needs.

With Dobro player Tony Reece, banjo player Darrel Earwood, guitarist Micah Hanks and brother Caleb Hanks on mandolin, Buncombe Turnpike will play the historic venue on Saturday. Since opening for the Steep Canyon Rangers years ago, Godleski says he’s wanted to get back to the theater.

“We’ll do all those songs [from Fresh Preserves], but we’re going to do some new stuff too,” he says. The band’s working on a new album they hope to put out this summer. Some of the tracks hold surprises—such as Godleski’s ode to Romanian gymnast and Olympic champion Nadia Comaneci.

“When I was 15, I was in love with her,” Godleski says with a laugh. “I mean, when I first saw her on TV I didn’t miss another time … the chorus goes, ‘I was a country boy from Caroline who wanted Nadia to be mine.’”

Not quite the stuff of Fresh Preserves, which came out last year. Many of the CD’s ballads came from stories told by Godleski’s uncle Robert Fowler, who became the central male figure in Godleski’s life after his father left when the children were little.

Below, the full Buncombe Turnpike band.

“I think that’s why I paid so much attention to what Uncle Robert said,” says Godleski, who hung onto his uncle’s many stories.

Fowler took Godleski along on his paper route, and his home later became Godleski’s escape.

“My stepdad was a real bad alcoholic,” Godleski says. He relays the family history in his straightforward mountain way, without pathos or pity-me. That’s how the Fresh Preserves stories go, too, even “Lawrence Cole,” which deals with domestic violence. “When I wanted to get away, I’d go to my aunt and uncle’s house. That was the most secure place in the world. My uncle was a real strong-willed, hard-nosed, loving guy, and my stepdad—bless his heart—my stepdad knew, there was no amount of liquor that would make him brave enough to come mess with Uncle Robert.”

Godleski could never get Uncle Robert to tell his stories in public. Still, on the CD, the 10 song tracks are followed by recordings of the stories that inspired them, some told by the actual folks who knew them. The oral tradition has gone digital.

Some of the stories’ more graphic details required finesse, and Godleski said he was lucky to have help with the songwriting. On “The Mountain Duel,” for example, a song about “the meanest man in Madison County,” the first draft had lyrics about one man popping the other man’s eyeball out during the fight.

“Our Dobro player, Tony Reece—an awesome musician, great guy and a good friend—he said, ‘Man, I don’t believe I’d play that in a song,’” Godleski says.

who: Buncombe Turnpike with Dave Desmelik
what: Traditional bluegrass and Americana
where: Colonial Theatre, downtown Canton.
when: Saturday, Feb. 7. 7 p.m. ($10. Tickets can be purchased at Canton Town Hall or at 648-2363 or 252-9534. www.buncombeturnpike.com)

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