Story by Tony Paris | Photographs by Alexis Faye
Abe Partridge is a singer from Mobile, Alabama. With his hoarse voice — imagine three packs a day for 30 years, each butt finished with a shot of whiskey for good measure — he tells stories you and I have never dreamed of, much less imagined. Stories about babies who “will never grow up to be astronauts,” about a woman who is as “ugly as a prison tattoo,” and about the South’s “old gray ghosts [who] won’t stay in the ground.”
Partridge writes these songs, too, taking a sledgehammer to traditional composition, sometimes knockin’ it down to build it back up. He plays guitar the same way he writes lyrics, bashing the strings with abandon until they’re just about to come loose, then beautifully picking the notes until every last word falls into place. More to the point, Partridge writes to make you sit up and think. He wants to jar your reality. Sometimes, his lyrics are sly and subtle. Sometimes they come at you with a roar and thunder, as if the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were approaching, and the heavens were opening up to herald a warning.
“I don’t consider myself a musician. I think of myself as a communicator,” Partridge tells me after a recent show at the Foundry in Athens, Georgia. “That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m just doing it with a guitar in my hand. I’m not trying to make a sound you want to listen to as you’re going to sleep at night, or, that you want to dance to. I do it to communicate.”
Partridge has just finished his set at the Classic City American Music Festival, one of the college town’s many Fourth of July festivities. While Independence Day is a time for celebration, this year a pall of uncertainty has set in, many Americans as they question where this country will head.
Partridge has wanted to communicate ever since he first left home, though that urge didn’t immediately prompt him to pick up a guitar.
Born and raised in Mobile, he left there at 18. (Partridge is now 37, and I don’t know if he’s ever smoked, much less finished a cigarette with a shot. His speaking voice doesn’t sound like his stage voice.) About the time most kids his age were listening to punk rock, forming bands, and figuring out what they wanted to do with their lives, Partridge had no idea what he wanted to do, other than be a communicator. He wasn’t raised in fundamentalist churches, but found himself in one, as a high schooler, when seeking some truth. People at the church he was attending suggested he study the Bible and spread the Good Word. He made it through one semester of Bible college and quit. But he wasn’t going to give up. He went to another in Chattanooga, then left that one after six months. But it wasn’t because of what he was learning.
“When I grew up, my parents were not very strict with me. I was able to do whatever I wanted, and then I went to this Bible college, where they’d go through your drawers to see what was going on … it was a total shock! You couldn’t have any unapproved music, any unapproved reading materials. Christianity has a lot of different flavors, and I was on the extreme right of the flavors.
“I grew up on punk. When I was in the church, I couldn’t listen to punk; I could only listen to pre-rock ’n’ roll music. That’s where I discovered blues and hillbilly music. My first instrument was the banjo. That started because I loved Roscoe Holcomb. And Doc Boggs. And the Stanley Brothers, these obscure … the only secular music I could listen to because it had lost its evilness over the decades. It was the devil’s music [at one time]. That was the first music I tried to learn, 1930s blues and hillbilly music, what they called pre-country music.”
Enrolling in another Bible college, Partridge lasted for two years until getting kicked out. He attended a fourth bible college in Northwest Georgia. There, Partridge finally graduated. The very next day, he married his wife, Catherine.
Serving as the understudy of a prominent independent Baptist preacher, Partridge rode with him all over the Southeast, to revivals and meetings, a communicator for the Lord, preaching and praying and spreading the word of God.
Learning the ways of being an independent Baptist preacher readied him for a move to Appalachia, to preach at a church in the eastern hills of Kentucky. Not long after, at age 25, he was called to pastor that church. Such great reward should have been a blessing for someone who fought so hard to finish his studies, but when the words had Partridge studied so hard to master left his mouth, full of the fire and brimstone oratory he learned traveling the backroads of the South, the words rang empty in his head.
“I took the pastor of the church in Kentucky, and when I did, I was all alone,” Partridge recalls. “It was just me and my wife and my two young children, and I got out of that echo chamber,” he says, referring to how he perceived the tight-knit communities of independent Baptists.
“It’s kind of like you're spiraling around and then gradually, your circle starts getting smaller and smaller and these people become your friends, and these people become as close as your family, and you just gradually fall in. And then, one day, you’re looking around, and everyone you know is an independent fundamental Baptist,” he explains. “Everybody you love is an independent fundamental Baptist, everybody you talk to is is an independent fundamental Baptist, and it works like an echo chamber.”
Everyone is saying and believing the same thing.
With his own church, “for the first time in seven years, I was outside of that echo chamber. I had the mental space to realize that I didn’t know everything. I didn’t have all the answers,” Partridge remembers. “When you’re in a belief structure like that, where everything is based on certainty, and doubt is a sin, as soon as you admit that you’re uncertain, it all comes crumbling down.”
Beginning to dig through the rubble his life had become, Partridge “descended into this dark, dark place,” trying to force himself into “the mold that I no longer fit … .”
A deep depression fell on him.
Though he might have been saving the souls of his flock in that poor, Appalachian town, Partridge realized he needed to start searching for his own salvation. Like a rebellious teenager just discovering three chords and the truth in rock and roll, he found it in the music he’d been forced to abandon.
"It coincided with high-speed internet access being brought to those mountains I was living in. YouTube exposed me to Bob Dylan, who then led me to Townes Van Zandt and Blaze Foley and guys like Steve Earle. I was like, ‘Holy Cow!’ The sadder the song was, the better it made me feel.
“I started writing songs while up there losing my mind, still in the ministry, and that’s when I started painting. That’s when I started all my art. It was an avenue, a way I could get all of it out because I didn’t have anybody I could talk to. I had no friends.”
What about his wife, whom he met while studying at Bible college?
Partridge pauses. “My wife is where I’m at now, but she was behind me on it. It was a long process, but we made it. And we’re stronger for it. It was a long, hard road, but it was worth it.
“I was up there [in Kentucky], really coming apart,” Partridge recalls. “I couldn’t do that anymore. Then, I realized, ‘Hey I just put the best years of my life into this … well, it’s too late now!’ And my degree was meaningless outside the independent fundamental Baptist churches.
“When I left, I left everything. I loaded up everything I had in a U-Haul trailer, put my wife and kids in the Mercury, and we drove right back to my mom’s house. I pushed reset on life and started over, complete from square one.”
Living in a spare room of his mother’s house was not where he wanted to be. He had to find a way to support his family. After a series of minimum-wage jobs, “I went to a recruiter. I went to all the different services’ recruiters," Partridge says. “The Air Force seemed like the best deal. I joined the Air Force."
Partridge spent three and a half years on active duty, including tours in Qatar during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. Unlike Bible college, he couldn’t quit the armed forces.
"There is no going home,” he says of his time in the desert. “You serve your time. You can’t say, ’take this job and shove it.’ You’re there, and, no matter how bad you want to leave, you’re not leaving.
“When I joined the Air Force, I thought of the military in terms of the way my grandfather served in World War II and in Korea. You think about World War II, and you think about [an enemy that is] putting people in ovens. You think about another guy that’s flying airplanes into battleships that are not engaged in conflict, killing people. To me, that’s something that civilized people cannot do. I had this idea of the American military … and I found it’s not like that now. The American military is just this cumbersome bureaucracy that has more interest in figuring out ways to get money funneled into it than it does in defense. I do believe in violence — [but] only in defense. I’m not going to let somebody kill me. I would never let somebody do something to my children or my wife, and, as an extension of that, I feel like violent force in the use of defense is justified, but in any other way, I feel like it’s totally unjustified. And aggressive war, in my book, is unpardonable.
“I’ve had like two defining points, two really low, low valleys in my life,” Partridge continues. “One was when I was in the church; the other was when I was over in the desert. When you’re over there, you have a whole lot of time to think. We work 12-hour shifts, six days a week.
“When you're not working, you’re sitting on a flight line in a tent, looking out, right? Looking out at this hazy, red sky, sweating your balls off. And it just gives you a lot of time for self-reflection.
“I saw a lot of stuff over there that I had suspected before. But when you're looking at it right square in the eye, and you see the B-2s [the stealth bombers], and you see six of them in this 12-hour shift come and go and come and go, I realized that basically, the only thing I had ever done with my adult life was brought negativity into the world through the type of preaching I did, and bring violence into the world through the military ….
“In the meantime, I was making this art: I was writing these songs, and I was painting these pictures, and I told God that if He’d just let me get home, that I would do my best to try to bring beauty into the world.”
Once Partridge returned home to Alabama, his music and art became his priorities. He’s still in the Air Force Reserves, working as an avionics engineer. But after performing at the Gulf Coast Writers Shootout, where the audience went wild for him, Partridge gained the confidence to take his songs on the road. Now, he challenges listeners at every club, bar, and honky tonk that allows him to open his guitar case and take the stage.
In 2015 he recorded his first album, "White Trash Lipstick," with musician Shawn Byrne, who first heard Partridge while competing against him at that Writers Shootout, recording and producing. For its follow-up, "Cotton Fields and Blood for Days," released early this year on the Alabama-based Skate Mountain Records, Partridge again entered the studio with Byrne. While Partridge, for the most part, colors within the lines on the first album, the second finds him exorcising demons he had only hinted at before.
The dark tones on "Cotton Fields and Blood for Days" — Partridge’s acoustic guitar punctuated with ominous atmospherics of sound: feedback, looped electric-guitar effects, cello, gated drums, and percussion — reinforce his dark lyrics and the netherworld of characters and situations he describes. There is no innocence on "White Trash Lipstick"; on "Cotton Fields and Blood for Days," there’s no salvation. There may be hell to pay for one’s transgressions; trouble is, many of those who inhabit Partridge’s songs have yet to realize they’ve sinned.
Partridge knows the difference between right and wrong. He’s made a choice. His songs still cry with disillusionment — he may have seen the light, but that doesn’t mean the darkness has lifted. And that’s the cross Partridge has to bear — to communicate the way, to lead us out of this quagmire of lies, deceit, greed, and corruption that has permeated our culture and subverted much of our society.
Having first served God, then country, Partridge has now found his voice, expressing his own needs and desires. His songs paint a picture of where we are now, and his paintings on tar-board tell us where we very well may be going — if we don’t get right.