GOD DIDN’T CHOOSE SIDES
Civil War True Stories about Real People, Vol. 1
Recently I finished reading a weathered paperback edition of Bruce Catton’s Reflections on the Civil War. Catton, of course, was a Pulitzer Prize winning Civil War historian (winning in 1954 for A Stillness at Appomattox, the third and concluding volume of his Army of the Potomac trilogy that began in 1951 with the publication of Mr. Lincoln’s Army and continued in 1952 with Glory Road) whose reputation for straightforward, insightful, empathetic reporting on the War has only been elevated with the surge in Civil War scholarship since his death in 1978.
Reflections on the Civil War is history, and then some. Compiled posthumously from educational tape recordings Catton had left behind, the book follows a linear chronology in terms of the Civil War’s history from Fort Sumter to Appomattox, and the major players are accounted for—for better and, for some, for worse—but the heart of the book, indeed its reason for being, is its recounting of the day-to-day trials and tribulations of the rank-and-file soldiers on each side, most of them far from their homes and families, with inadequate arms and supplies, food that was mostly unfit for human consumption, and threadbare clothing to boot. In advancing his point of view about the men who were doing the actual fighting and dying, Catton had the great good fortune to find records kept by Federal Army engineer John Geyser, notably a series of some 17 stark, haunting drawings Geyser made of scenes he witnessed and the men he traveled and took up arms with. In fact, in devoting considerable verbiage and insight into the still-unheralded work of the engineers—who sometimes had only a day’s time, or even less, to build bridges so troops and material could literally make it to the other side of a river or stream, and often had to work completely under water—Catton fashions one of the most vivid accounts of life on the front lines of the Civil War as has ever been published. He came by this knowledge firsthand, from talking to aged Civil War veterans in his childhood and not only absorbing their colorful, and often horrifyingly bloody, tales of various battles, but understanding their pride in their commitment to a cause both North and South thought noble. As he write in his 1972 memoir, Waiting for the Morning Train, “These stories gave a color and a tone not merely to our village life, but to the concept of life with which we grew up … I think I was always subconsciously driven by an attempt to restate that faith and to show where it was properly grounded, how it grew out of what a great many young men on both sides felt and believed and were brave enough to do.”
From God Didn’t Choose Sides, the real-life story that inspired the song ‘The River Man,’ written by Mark Brinkman and Paula Breedlove, who are interviewed herein. Dave Adkins, vocal.
The facts behind the song ‘Rebel Hart’ and an interview with songwriters Mike Evans and Paula Breedlove. Vocal by Brad Gulley on God Didn’t Choose Sides.
Now, thanks to the good folks at Rural Rhythm, the musical equivalent of Reflections on the Civil War is available in the form of the new CD, God Didn’t Choose Sides: Civil War True Stories about Real People, Volume 1. Rural Rhythm didn’t have to look far beyond its own roster to assemble an all-star roots cast to realize this project, reeling in ace producer and supremely gifted songwriter Steve Gulley to steer things in the studio; enlisting A-team musicians such as Sammy Shelor, Tim Stafford, Alan Bibey, Adam Steffey, Brandon Rickman, Ron Stewart and Justin Moses to back an all-star artist roster of Russell Moore, Carrie Hassler, Bradley Walker, Marty Raybon, Ronnie Bowman, the Lonesome River Band, Dale Ann Bradley, Gulley and Stafford, who in turn completely immerse themselves in songs written by the formidable likes of Brink Brinkman, Brad Davis, Paula Breedlove, Ray Edwards, Mike Evans, Terry Foust and, again, Gulley and Stafford (with whom you simply cannot go wrong). All of these artists deserve a standing ovation, a tip of the Hatlo hat and, a la Blazing Saddles, a laurel and hearty handshake for their commitment to giving listeners an unforgettable experience of how the war hit home on the most personal levels, in the lives of the unsung and many unknown combatants and family members who lived it on a daily basis not merely for the five years it endured, but for the rest of their days, either in memory, or in the fact of the visible wounds they carried with them to the grave. In the end, the abovementioned artists fully realized the vision for this project as created and defined by Rural Rhythm president Sam Passamano II, who writes in the liner booklet: “There are many songs available about the popular military commanders, battles and the politics, but I wanted to focus on real stories about the common soldiers, slaves and immigrants whose lives, and the lives of those around them, were changed forever because of the Civil War. These true stories and people should not be forgotten or lost through the years.”
Rural Rhythm president Sam Passamano II and producer-songwriter-vocalist Steve Gulley explain the animating concept of God Didn’t Choose Sides. Also interviewed: songwriters Mark Brinkman and Paula Breedlove, who penned the bulk of the album’s story-songs. Marty Raybon sings the title track.
Steve Gulley explains the historical background informing ‘I’m Almost Home,’ the first song on God Didn’t Choose Sides, written by Gulley and Tim Stafford, performed on the album by Steve Gulley.
Some may shy away from God Didn’t Choose Sides because the musicians succeed all too well—they make us feel the pain of the parties they sing of. For the most part the songs are, unsurprisingly, tinged with, if not outright immersed in, sadness. Steve Gulley kicks things off with one of his co-writes with Stafford, “I’m Almost Home,” the story of Theodrick “Tod” Carter, tenth child of Fountain and Mary Carter of Franklin, TN. In 1861 Tod followed his older brother into the Confederate Army and quickly rose through the ranks. In 1864, the now-Captain Carter led his troops of the 20th Tennessee Infantry into the fray at the Battle of Franklin, shouting, “Follow me, boys! I’m almost home.” Fatally wounded, he was found on the battlefield by his father and brought back home, where he died surrounded by the family he loved. The banjo, resonator guitar and fiddle support behind Gulley’s vocal are a strong and sturdy as his singing, but like his singing, reveal a searing pain awaiting expression, as happens at the end in the mournful lyric, “From this world of sorrow torn, in the very house where he was born/As his father said, ‘You’ve done your best’ he drifted off and took his rest.” If I didn’t know better, I’d think Gulley and/or Stafford had been doing research in ancient cemeteries filled with tombstones inscribed with exactly such poignant, heart rending verse as this.
Songwriter Ray Edwards on the true story informing ‘Last Day at Vicksburg’ on God Didn’t Choose Sides. The song is based on the puzzling demise of Confederate soldier Andrew Jackson Andrews after the Battle of Vicksburg. Private Andrews’s great-great grandson, Terry Foust, co-wrote the song with Ray Edwards.
Songwriters Mike Evans and Mark Brinkman on their visit to the Confederate cemetery and to stone #233 that inspired the song they co-wrote with Paula Breedlove, ‘The Lady in Gray,’ performed by Ronnie Bowman on God Didn’t Choose Sides.
Gulley’s performance really sets the tone for a disc replete with wrenching stories told with uncommon restraint, all the better to mask souls teetering on the edge of collapse, and subsumed in grief. Save for the little bitty tear in her voice, especially in its keening upper register, Dale Ann Bradley sounds even-keeled in “Christmas in Savannah” (a Brinkman-Breedlove co-write), a Yuletide reflection from the war-torn city at the end of Sherman’s March to the Sea. Over languid twin fiddles, Bradley tells of “90 Yankee soldiers” bringing “food and fresh provisions in wagons that were pulled/by little Christmas reindeer that looked a lot like mules” (which in fact they were). To say such a Christmas celebration was anything but bittersweet—emphasis on bitter—would be to ignore the irony informing Dale Ann’s every sung note. For unvarnished sadness, Breedlove-Brinkman’s “A Picture of Three Children” is nigh on to excruciating. A plaintive Russell Moore, with equally sensitive support from Adam Steffey on mandolin and Justin Moses on resonator, tells the story of an unknown Union soldier felled at Gettysburg and found clutching in his dead hand a photo of three young children. He was identified as Amos Humiston when his wife, back home in Portville, New York, saw her childrens’ photo reprinted in a newspaper article about the dead, unidentified soldier and realized “Amos won’t be coming home.” Ron Stewart’s fiddle is the haunted cry of the wounded and dying in “Carrie’s Graveyard Book,” an intense, Rhonda Vincent-like communiqué concerning the efforts of Carrie McGavock to keep a book of every soldier that was buried in the two-acre graveyard outside her home, which had been commissioned as a field hospital during the Battle of Franklin, which basically took place in her front yard. Another Carrie, Carrie Hassler, one of bluegrass’s finest, does the vocal honors here with an impassioned, emotional reading of the gritty lyrics supplied by Breedlove, Brinkman and Mike Evans.
In an album of uniformly excellent performances, the most intense, heated one comes from the impressive Dave Adkins (whose first album with his band Republik Steel, That’s Just the Way I Roll, was a Deep Roots Album of the Week honoree last month) on “The River Man,” the apex of the Breedlove-Brinkman collaboration on this outing. Singing with his usual bluesy grittiness and striking sense of texture, Adkins wrings every ounce of drama out of the story of John P. Parker, who as an eight-year-old was taken from his family in Virginia and forced to walk to Mobile, Alabama, where he was enslaved at an iron factory for the next decade. At age 18 he had earned enough to buy his freedom, and promptly relocated to Ohio, where he married and took a job in an iron factory. As per the liner notes: “He spent the rest of his life in Ripley, Ohio, an iron worker by day and a conductor on the Underground Railroad by night. Risking constant dangers, Parker carried hundreds of men, women and children over the river to the freedom that lay on the other side. He continued fighting for justice until 1910 when he died in his bed surrounded by family as a free man.” Adkins tells the tale with dignity and with a low but pronounced flame of outrage, honoring Parker’s courage and commitment to his “double life” to a degree Parker never experienced in his own time.
Songwriters Mike Evans and Paula Breedlove explain the odd, otherworldly event at the brutal Andersonville Prison that inspired their song ‘Providence Spring’ on God Didn’t Choose Sides. Performed on the album by Tim Stafford.
Songwriters Paula Breedlove and Brad Davis on the tragic real-life events that made Jennie Wade the only civilian killed in the Civil War, and one of its few female casualties, and which inspired the song ‘The Legend of Jennie Wade’ on God Didn’t Choose Sides.
These and other fine performances—by Brad Gulley on “Rebel Hart”; by Bradley Walker in telling the story of the proud Private Andrew Jackson Andrews and his still puzzling demise in “Last Day at Vicksburg,” one of whose co-writers, Terry Foust, is Private Andrews’s great-great grandson; by Ronnie Bowman, with a moving interpretation of “The Lady in Gray,” concerning the spirit of a dead Confederate soldier’s true love still haunting the cemetery outside the Union prison where he died, one of the album’s livelier workouts thanks to brisk soloing Ron Stewart on banjo and fiddle, Adam Steffey on mandolin and Tim Stafford on guitar, plus and a soaring, piercing chorus harmonized beautifully by Bowman and an unidentified but affecting female singer; by the Lonesome River Band in conjuring the terrible twist of fate from which sprang “The Legend of Jennie Wade” (the only civilian killed in a Civil War battle, and one of the few women killed as well)—ultimately lead to the same conclusion Bruce Catton came to in his reflections on the Civil War: that in this bloody, confused, unspeakably brutal conflict, “God Didn’t Choose Sides.” The title track, by Brinkman-Breedlove, finds fiddler Ron Stewart interpolating a snippet of melody from Jay Ungar’s “Ashokan Farewell” (always guaranteed to tug a few heartstrings in signaling a moment of quiet introspection) as Marty Raybon digs in with a deeply felt message of reconciliation and salvation. Its pronounced spiritual overtones are further bolstered by Dale Ann Bradley, Steve Gulley, Don Gulley and Vic Graves forming an a cappella southern gospel quartet to assure the fallen of God’s saving grace through faith on William Cowper’s stirring 1772 hymn of salvation, “There Is a Fountain.” So ends Volume 1, with the quartet solemnly intoning “lies silent in the grave…lies silent in the grave.” The repetition of that phrase suggests those voices are but temporarily stilled. They will rise again, when someone steps forward to speak of their “very homely truths,” as Bruce Catton wrote, and “in the end…lift up our eyes beyond the glow in the sunset skies.”