BY STEVEN ROSEN
“Americana” is a synthetic term, at least in the contemporary meaning. But historically, some music is organically Americana because it just is. It’s part of our nation’s DNA. Songs from the Civil War era qualify, certainly – painfully so. But do they still have enough life, enough juice, to appeal to lovers of today’s Americana music?
Randall Poster, whose outstanding work as co-producer/music supervisor for the soundtrack to Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There resulted in the best Dylan-covers album ever, attempts a try on the two-disc, 32-song Divided & United: The Songs of the Civil War. He has O Brother Where Art Thou ambitions, and there are O Brother soundtrack participants here, including its creator, T Bone Burnett, himself.
Poster has rounded up all sorts of country, bluegrass and folk artists for his project, from the legendary traditionalists (Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Ralph Stanley, the late Cowboy Jack Clement) to rock-influenced alt-country and alt-folk figures (Shovels & Rope, Pokey Lafarge, Karen Elson).
Poster also has good connections with the conceptualist roots-music cognoscenti – Steve Earle, Burnett, Joe Henry also contribute. And he got the virtuoso banjoist Bryan Sutton to assemble appropriate historic songs and take the lead in performing several (“Hell’s Broke Loose in Georgia,” “Battle Cry of Freedom”).
This is meant to both remember the Civil War’s 150th anniversary and also be infused with today’s concerns. So there are songs about both Union and Confederate soldiers, as well as songs about the emancipation of slaves, the hardships faced by civilians and the political nuances of the war years.
You can actually learn a lot from the songs – “Just Before the Battle, Mother/Farewell, Mother,” which features Steve Earle and Dirk Powell sounding like hard-bitten Shane MacGowan, references as “traitors” the Northern Copperheads who were anti-war.
In the wake of 12 Years a Slave and the horrors of slavery it depicts, I’m not sure this inclusive approach has the impact it might have had even just a few months ago. It’s hard to feel equal empathy for everyone involved, to see both sides as weary victims of war’s cruelty, when you know what the Confederates were fighting for.
However, you can put such thoughts aside when a master vocalist like Jamey Johnson – his deep, pining voice not just grave but seeming to speak from the grave – turns the Southern Appalachian folk song “Rebel Soldier” into a melancholy and chilling lament. There’s no finer country singer right now, no one so in touch with the lonesomeness that’s part of being human. He makes you feel his subject’s tragedy.
One wants all the songs here to hit as hard and shake us up like those two. But there are times – Chris Hillman on “Hard Times,” Ricky Skaggs on “Two Soldiers,” Sam Amidon on “Wildwood Flower,” Vince Gill singing “Dear Old Flag,” Chris Thile and Michael Daves on the bluegrassy “Richmond Is a Hard Road to Travel” – when Divided & United veers toward being a pretty-sounding period piece. And at those points, it starts to lull.
Maybe their voices are just too nice for this project. It’s the shopworn but emotion-soaked voices that deliver many of the project’s peak moments. Loretta Lynn’s “Take Your Gun and Go, John,” an 1862 song about a woman encouraging her husband to join the Union Army, has added resonance from the fact she is from Kentucky, a state wracked by divisiveness during the war. “Tenting on the Old Campground,” an 1864 folk song for enlisted Union soldiers that is both impassioned and anti-war, is acoustic but benefits from John Doe’s knowledge of rock ‘n’ roll vocal dynamics. At its best, it ignites spirits like Phil Ochs at a political rally.
Taj Mahal’s “Down by the Riverside” shows the old bluesman still has a lot of life left in his weathered voice. Ralph Stanley’s “The Vacant Chair,” written in 1861 as a memorial to a Massachusetts soldier, is uniting in the spirit of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Joe Henry’s “Aura Lee,” an 1861 minstrel song, has a relaxed pastoral gentleness that would do John Hartford proud.
And T Bone Burnett’s dramatic, almost avant-garde arrangement of “The Battle on Antietam” – about two brothers on opposite sides of the battle – opens with a gorgeous clarinet solo and uses rumbling piano and thunderbolt percussion to wrap his vocal in ominousness. It’s outstanding.
By being so ambitious and large a project, Divided & United has its misses as well as its hits. It lacks consistency, but it works well often enough to make this a reasonably satisfying exercise in both 19th and 21st Century Americana.
DOWNLOAD: Take your pick!