In the cramped green room at Raleigh’s Lincoln Theatre, Charles Wesley Godwin pulled his bandmates in for a huddle.
A few feet away, on center stage, BJ Barham and his daughter, Pearl, were already talking up Godwin to the sold-out crowd. This was early February, on the third and final night of the annual Roadtrip to Raleigh, which Barham personally curates, hosts, and headlines with his band American Aquarium. This year, 49 Winchester, Muscadine Bloodline, and Godwin held down the middle spots of the three-act bill on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, respectively. Given the trajectory of those bands (along with openers Drayton Farley, Gabe Lee, and Emily Nenni), it’s easy to envision Aquarium playing the role of opener instead.
This is what Barham wants from his festival, and he takes his introductions seriously. He praised Godwin’s independent roots and high-energy live show before having Pearl — age 5 — introduce Godwin over the loudspeakers.
“Chuck, we’re ready,” Godwin’s tour manager, Adam Gerber, called out from the hall.
Godwin turned to the five members of the Allegheny High — the band he calls his “ride or die” — in a manner more befitting a football coach before a game than a lead singer.
“Let’s go out there and have fun, man,” he shouted, his voice booming off the concrete walls. “There’s no pressure, so let’s get out there and rip it!”
Then, Godwin and co. went onstage and ripped it: An hour-long set that began with “Cue Country Roads” and ended with Barham joining in for the cover of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” that the Morgantown, West Virginia, native prefers as his closer. The crowd got a showstopper, from the artist smack dab in the middle of that night’s lineup.
“These club rooms were the key,” Godwin tells Rolling Stone. “Once the club rooms filled, it all started to feel the same. Playing to a full room of 300 people isn’t much different than playing to a full hillside at a state fair in front of 13,000 people.”
The Roadtrip to Raleigh appearance technically counts as a break for Godwin. He’s been on the road nonstop, a run highlighted by a two-night stand at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville in December, and two nights with Turnpike Troubadours and Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit at Oklahoma City’s Paycom Center in January. On Monday, he’ll make his debut on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and take a short break before resuming his headlining tour in March, five months since the release of Family Ties, his intensely personal third album and first for Big Loud Records.
The lull is by design. The 30-year-old wants his band and crew to enjoy life as much as he is right now.
“Where the goalposts have changed for me is the motivation to be able to pay everybody that works for this thing a comfortable living,” Godwin says. “That’s what I’m shooting for now. I want everybody who has helped me to do well.”
But Godwin didn’t set out to make music. He grew up a football player and a rabid fan of West Virginia University. That culminated in attending the school, majoring in finance, and walking on to the Mountaineers’ football team. He eventually accepted that he had no NFL in his future and turned to music.
“I was 20 years old and I was looking for some new hobbies to get into,” Godwin says. “All my time prior to that, outside of hunting and fishing with my friends, was training. I was just trying to find some ways to fill that time. So, it was 2011, and I was watching the Grammys. The Avett Brothers came on. They sang ‘I and Love and You.’ They played a song with Bob Dylan. They played a song with Mumford and Sons. There was a moment when I was watching Seth Avett play the guitar, and I thought, ‘That’s amazing. Maybe that would be a good hobby to get into.’”
He rooted through his brother’s closet in search of an old Jasmine Takamine guitar his sibling had purchased and quickly lost interest in. When Godwin picked it up, however, he never put it down. A year later, he took the guitar with him on a study abroad program in Estonia, where he learned his raspy West Virginia accent commanded attention and he that had a gift for writing introspective, emo-laden lyrics — the exact kind that have suddenly forced their way into the mainstream country conscience.
“I had never been overseas before,” Godwin says. “I kept playing in the evenings, working on that hobby. I lived with six other flatmates, so there was no way that I could keep practicing and not be heard. They heard me, and they liked it. That made me uncomfortable, because I had never planned on playing in front of people.”
One night, a roommate surreptitiously took Godwin’s guitar with them to a club and strong-armed him into performing. “I did one song. I was all nerves, but it went well. That was on a Friday,” Godwin says. “The next Monday, I got a Facebook message from a fashion designer in town, and she asked if I would play for her fashion show. I showed up and played my first gig, for 20 minutes. I thought, ‘This 150 euro is the easiest money I’ve ever made in my life. I ought to start doing this on the side.’ I played a couple more gigs there, then I came home to West Virginia and started my first band — a bluegrass band.”
Now, 12 years later, Godwin has the Allegheny High and a third studio album in Family Ties, following his 2019 debut Seneca and 2021’s How the Mighty Fall. The 19-track record is heavy on sentiment. “Miner Imperfections” was written for his father. “Dance in the Rain” is for his daughter. “All Again” is for his wife.
In “Cue Country Roads,” Godwin showcases his West Virginia home — a part of the country that you can hear in every Godwin song. If his dialect, lyrics, and musical arrangements all sound like the result of setting John Denver’s famous ode to the state loose in a hall of mirrors, Godwin says that’s by design.
“I intentionally try to make it sound like this is West Virginia,” he says. “West Virginia has weird accents within it. There are really three sections. The southern section is very Kentucky-sounding. The center section is much more in tune with the Shenandoah Valley. And the northern section, where I grew up, is this mix between Southern, hillbilly, and the Yinzer dialect — my whole band’s from Pennsylvania. I was never going to be good at, like, a cowboy rodeo sound. It would sound like a kid from West Virginia trying to do George Strait. It took time to figure this out, but I had to be myself, and find what my natural voice was.”
In 2022, he got a huge boost by touring and playing with Zach Bryan, a run that helped pave the way for his December 2023 sell-outs at the Ryman. Godwin recognizes that he has crossed a threshold. He can play arenas. He can play theaters. He can open. He can headline. Whether he’ll draw Bryan-sized stadium crowds one day is yet to be determined, but he’ll be onstage somewhere for the rest of his life.
“I love the crowd that Family Ties has connected with,” he says. “It’s folks from their mid-20s to their 50s. It’s families and people who are going through what I’m going through. It’s given them maybe the words or feelings that they have that maybe they can’t articulate. It’s what’s fueling their soul. But there are also younger folks who are single, nowhere near having kids, and they’re liking it too. Maybe they’re feeling what their dad was feeling, you know? I feel like I’ve hit the nail on the head with all this now.”
The fiercely independent Barham sees it, too. He holds Roadtrip to Raleigh at the small-ish Lincoln Theatre (capacity is under 1,000) in part because it has no ties to LiveNation, AEG or other mega-business. He has publicly crusaded against venues taking a cut of an artist’s merch sales and is vocal on social media when he perceives injustice or discrimination. When he chooses the bands who play ahead of Aquarium for his homecoming weekend, Barham looks for that same fighting spirit. He sees it in Godwin.
“The thing I appreciate about Charles the most is that he’s doing it, as I consider it, the right way,” Barham says. “He’s not doing it by making TikTok videos or making online advertisements. He’s doing it by putting together a really great band of musicians and writing really great songs. What Charles is building is something foundationally great. Whether or not TikTok is around in 20 years, I don’t know, but I know that the music of Charles Wesley Godwin will be.”
Godwin, however, doesn’t concern himself too much with the future: He looks only to the next blank page. The songwriter recalls a late-night heart-to-heart he had with his father-in-law during a particularly stressful time in Godwin’s life. His got the advice he didn’t expect but needed to hear.
“‘You can only control what you can control,’ he told me. ‘You’re put on this earth to write songs. Go to the notebook. Follow your heart. It’ll work out,’” Godwin says. “And that’s what I did.”