Folk and country musician Willi Carlisle needs his audiences. All musicians do, but Carlisle's connection to, and mutual admiration with, his fans feels particularly essential and acutely immediate. Not until he's performed a song live for months, does Carlisle really understand it, he says.
And for "I Won't Be Afraid," the sixth track off Carlisle's sophomore album, Peculiar, Missouri, released in July 2022, the audience becomes a vital part of the performance, too. The track's chorus "I won't be afraid anymore / I won't be afraid anymore / Lord knows I've done some dumb shit / And I plan to do some more / But I won't be afraid anymore," elevates the song from simple acoustic musing to an anthem of sorts, inviting the listener to sing along. And Carlisle's come to require it.
"I didn't when I first wrote it. But the moment that I did, the moment that it was kind of in that space, I wanted more people to do it with me. Because then it feels really good... I need more narrative energy to push me forward," Carlisle says.
Carlisle grew up listening to folk and bluegrass music. After moving to the Ozarks to teach poetry, he fell in love with the region's folk music traditions, soaking them in through square dances and music circles. The communal nature of those gatherings imbued Carlisle's own music with an intimacy which makes connection feel innate and easy.
"I Won't be Afraid," the simplest track on Peculiar, Missouri, is essentially an acoustic guitar and vocal number with a straightforward message: it's okay to be yourself. The song functions as a pivot point between the album's A-Side hits like "Tulsa's Last Musician," and "Van Life," and B-Side intellectual musings like an ee cummings poem set to music and the album's title track. Feeling both like a respite and a mantra with which to carry on, it's a place to stop and catch your breath before plunging into the album's occasionally high-concept and thought-provoking second act.
Writing intellectual, complex songs comes easier to Carlisle than the straightforward ones. And initially he thought "I Won't Be Afraid" was too simple to include on an album. But he learned to embrace it when people responded positively to the song's message.
"It seems a little pretentious, but doing it [performing emotional, vulnerable songs] in public is important to me. I want us to have somewhat religious experiences together about whether or not we're living correctly, or whether or not we're worthy," Carlisle says.
Carlisle wrote "I Won't Be Afraid," in about 30 minutes sequestered in the back bedroom of the apartment he shared with his then-partner during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The room offered him privacy from which to teach remote music lessons and in which it felt okay to express his self-described slovenly tendencies.
"There was a bed in it so I could take a nap in the middle of the day when I wasn't supposed to and lots of places to hide Cheetos; there was a backdoor so I could go outside and smoke in secret and stuff like that," he recalls.
In that room one day, thinking about the Mississippi John Hurt licks one of his student wanted to learn and what he deems two "perfect" songs — "Rex's Blues" by Townes Van Zandt and "Using Again," by Benjamin Tod — lyrics came to Carlisle, quickly and out of nowhere.
"You have to be doing something to be creative, or at least I do. Because then you leave the six inches for the Lord. You leave a little gap for something good to come in. But you make sure that you're a little too busy or doing a little too much, and then it'll happen," he says.
The song's meatiest verse took the longest to write because Carlisle wanted it to deepen the meaning of the song: "And there I'll stand in line and I'll be counted / I'll be sorted among the ones that doubted / As for the saved, I wish you well / I'm alright with going to hell / Seems like the city on the hill is gettin' crowded," Carlisle sings, flipping the supposed universal appeal of heaven on its head.
"I was looking for what stakes to bring it, it's like, well, so where do you bring it? Where do people like Townes bring it? They raise it to life and death. And then there you go," he says.
"I Won't Be Afraid" was "a crier" to write, as Carlisle calls it: if a song makes him feel emotion, he figures there's a good chance it'll do the same for audiences. As he struggles with the growing pains induced by the success of Peculiar, Missouri, Carlisle finds solace in his continued ability to connect on a deep level with his audiences, and is wary of what happens if that emotional synapse disappears.
"Something that I do hold important is that in the physical space of the performance we can make [the song's] sentiment real. And we can make it real together, and it's a group decision," Carlisle says.
Music history's best protest songs hinge on the repetition of simple, universal concepts. Drawing power from a single act of defiance: choosing not to be afraid, even in a world replete with things to fear, "I Won't Be Afraid," joins songs like Pete Seeger's "We Shall Overcome" and Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come," in the annals of protest songs that thrive on a message of love and togetherness.
"We're walking around every day, wondering if we're going to be okay, if we're okay. At least I am. And I think I want people to know that they're okay. And I want to tell myself that," Carlisle says.
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