various artists,
God Didn't Choose Sides, Vol. 1
(Rural Rhythm, 2013)

As those of us immersed in its history are aware, the Civil War was waged between April 1861 and April 1865. A century and a half later, that momentous event is being recalled in various ways, not least on this interesting release.

Except for the concluding number ("There is a Fountain"), God Didn't Choose Sides does not revisit authentic period songs, ballads and hymns; its material is overwhelmingly modern and recent, featuring compositions by leading bluegrass writers such as Tim Stafford, Paula Breedlove, Steve Gulley, Mark "Brink" Brinkman and others. These are story-songs -- ballads -- fashioned out of what is manifestly a conscientious effort at research into real episodes and persons. The performers (e.g., Lonesome River Band, Marty Raybon, Carrie Hassler) are mostly acts signed to Rural Rhythm, and the rest are from other respected roots labels (Dale Ann Bradley from Compass, Adam Steffey and Ron Stewart from Mountain Home.)

For decades the Civil War has been a recurring obsession of bluegrass composers. It may have begun with the late Charlie Moore's "Legend of the Rebel Soldier" (set, incidentally, to the melody of the Irish rebel ballad "Kevin Barry"). Like nearly everything that came after it, the song is sung from a distinctively Southern perspective, stressing the nobility, suffering and patriotism of the doomed title character. Unlike much of the folk and popular music of the period, it mentions neither slavery nor secession. Neither would the many Confederate-evoking songs to come. In them, as on God Didn't Choose, the Civil War is sometimes delicately called the "War Between the States," a still-extant Southern euphemism which in literal translation conjures up visions of armed conflict between, say, Iowa and Wisconsin or Alabama and Mississippi. It is not a term historians use, or many who live above the Mason-Dixon line. In unvarnished truth it was a civil war, and the right side won.

The "War Between the States" stumble notwithstanding, the researchers, compilers and writers of this CD have generally taken care to render the present project something other than the usual, in other words the creation of Southern bluegrass musicians with largely right-leaning political sympathies and a cultural/historical outlook to match. The songs focus on participants -- not all of them uniformed soldiers -- on both sides of the conflict. Each camp suffers nobly, and the loyalties of all are honored without specific ideological reference. In possibly a first (no precedent comes to mind), slavery is acknowledged, in Dave Adkins's soulful reading of Breedlove and Mike Evans's "The River Man," about a black abolitionist, John P. Parker, active in the Underground Railroad. Unfortunately, the last verse blunders into, groan, a reference to the "War Between the States," a phrase practically never spoken (on either side) during the war and, in any event, one with which black Americans would have been out of sympathy.

Even so, it is hard not to admire God Didn't Choose. The songs are hard hitting and sincere in both intention and delivery. Breedlove and Brinkman's "A Picture of Three Children" (sung by Russell Moore), which relates a particularly heart-breaking episode from the Battle of Gettysburg, is a breath-stopper. In Marty Raybon's hands the title song transcends sentimental piffle to become a meaningful, religiously themed meditation on the wrenching cost of war. Musically speaking, I find nothing to complain about, and just about everything to celebrate.

The liner notes report that this is "the first release from a new series." That's good news, and I look forward to more. I do hope, however, that at least one volume is devoted to genuine Civil War music.

music review by
Jerome Clark

20 April 2013

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