New Podcast Takes Up Snake Handling Churches — But Leaves Behind The Stereotypes
This story originally aired in the Nov. 4, 2022 episode of Inside Appalachia.
Folkways reporter Zack Harold interviews musician, songwriter, painter and former preacher Abe Partridge about his podcast Alabama Astronaut, which chronicles the world of Appalachian snake handling churches and the unique genre of music found within their walls.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Harold: Can you give us a brief introduction on how you became familiar with the world of snake handling churches?
Partridge: I guess it depends on how far we want to go back, but I pastored in Middlesboro, Kentucky when I was in my mid 20s. I went through a crisis of faith, I guess you could say, and I was in the process of leaving the church.
During that time, I met a guy by the name of Jamie Coots, who was pretty well known in the serpent handling faith. We probably had a 30 or 45 minute conversation, but in that 30 or 45 minutes, it was a real striking conversation that I never forgot. He gave me his phone number — I think he knew that I was struggling.
Well, I started playing songs and painting and stuff like that. I was touring on the West Coast with artists by the name of Jerry Joseph and this other Alabamian from Birmingham named Will Stewart. He had a song that he wrote called “Brush Arbor.” It had a line in it that mentioned “copperheads and the Holy Ghost.” And I thought that was odd. I asked Will what it was about and he's like, “It's about a book I read called ‘Salvation on Sand Mountain.’” I read it at the beginning of the pandemic. And guess who's in it? Jamie Coots.
So I said, “I'm going to go find this serpent handling church and I'm going to go.” Well, I found a few. And at every one that I went to, I had heard songs that I never knew — that I'd never heard before. And I had spent a large portion of my life in church.
Harold: For people that haven't heard the podcast — what makes it special, compared to church music they might be familiar with?
Patridge: It differs, number one, in the lyrical content. These people happen to believe a certain passage of scripture that's found in the book of Mark, chapter 16, verses 18 and 19. It draws from Jesus' last words to his disciples before he ascended into heaven. And the last things that he told his disciples was there were five signs that were going to follow them that believe. Very quickly, the five are: cast out devils, laying hands on the sick and they shall recover, speaking in tongues, “they shall take up serpents,” and then “if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them.”
Now there are hundreds of millions of Pentecostals that exist on planet Earth. And nearly all of those Pentecostals will do three of those signs — speaking in tongues, they profess to cast out devils and they profess to lay hands on the sick and then they recover. But outside of these few believers, I'm not aware of any other ones in the world where they literally take up serpents and literally, if they consume a poison that it does not hurt them.
So whenever you hear a song that references those, you know that it had to originate within this sect of believers — because there is literally no other sect of believers on planet Earth that falls under the realm of Christianity that believe these things.
Harold: The musical style is also unique. How would you describe that?
Partridge: Dennis Covington wrote the book “Salvation on Sand Mountain.” He described it as a mixture of Salvation Army and acid rock. And then other people have called it rockabilly, rock and roll, rock and roll sacred music. I call it serpent handling gospel music. They just call it music.
Harold: So how is this tradition being passed down?
Partridge: The same way that music was passed down for all the centuries before man had access to means of recording. Person to person, church to church. I have yet to meet a serpent handling musician that had any type of formal training in music. They pass down both the songs and the style of their playing, I guess you would say, orally.
Harold: But you've got churches all the way from Alabama up into West Virginia. It's a pretty big swath of territory. Are they visiting one another and passing along songs? How does that cultural exchange happen?
Partridge: The serpent handlers know each other. They sometimes have special meetings they call them “homecomings.” Sometimes they have meetings called “revivals.” And people will travel from the other churches to attend. I've actually been in services before where, if you listen to the audio, you would assume there was only one guitar player. But in actuality, there were multiple guitar players. They pass the guitar along as each one feels led. But they play the same style, because it all derives from their sacred music.
Harold: Has there been a change over the years in the kind of music that the snake handling churches are playing? Or has it maintained some kind of consistency?
Partridge: I wouldn't call them “changes,” I would call them “tweaks” with the introduction of electric instruments, probably in the ‘60s. But before that even, they were playing acoustic instruments, and they were playing the same type of songs they're playing now.
It's still actively, right now in 2022, being passed down. And I've got hundreds of hours of recordings that show this kind of music being played back into the ‘50s.
Harold: It seems the depth you've gone into all this — is it all just about the music? Or is there something else behind it too?
Partridge: So it's always been music first. That was my goal. But I will tell you this, if it was just about the music, I wouldn't still be going. I've already got hundreds of hours of recordings. I could put a record out but two weeks ago, I was still there.
It's actually helped rekindle my own faith. I wouldn't necessarily like to line out what that looks like. And, you know, I'm not going to start picking up snakes. But I have witnessed things in the moment that felt absolutely supernatural.
Harold: So you've got the recordings. What's the plan to present those to the public?
Partridge: We have released the Coots Duo album, which is an album that we recorded inside of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus’ Name in Middlesboro, Kentucky — which is Jamie Coots’ old church — with his son Cody, and his wife, Cassie.
Cody happens to be a fourth generation serpent handler, serpent handling preacher and songwriter. So we've recorded music with them. And we've already put that out on our website. It's already available for download.
The goal is to create a documentary record that is captured within the church. But now I need to find the most powerful moments and get these things mixed and mastered — which I do not personally have the skills to do. So that's where we're at right now.
And let me tell you when it gets done, it is going to blow your mind. Because it's so good.
Harold: This is one of the most compelling podcasts I've heard in a long time. It gives a peek into a side of American culture that I don't think a whole lot of people have thought about. A lot of people don't even know exists. And it handles it with such respect and an apparent love of the subject matter.
Partridge: It's not hard to treat them with respect. It's not hard, but it never gets done. I think the overall theme is, there's a lot of people in this world. And like Dr. Hood said in the podcast, if we're going to have diversity in this country then it requires a respect.
You can find more information about the Alabama Astronaut podcast, the Coots Duo album and Partridge’s other projects at AlabamaAstronaut.com.
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council.
The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.