Music about the Civil War is a staple of bluegrass and folk music. There are some memorable songs and terrific collections that recall the pain and anguish of brother fighting brother.
But I’m pretty sure there’s never been anything like God Didn’t Choose Sides, the startling CD from Rural Rhythm in which each of the 13 songs is based on a factual story about a real, ordinary person.
How good it is? Good enough to make me go way out on a limb. I think this collaborative effort will be the runaway winner of IBMA’s recorded event of the year award later this year in Raleigh. It’s got everything: First-rate songwriting by Mark Brinkman, Paula Breedlove, Brad Davis, Mike Evans and others; incredible instrumentation by Ron Stewart, Adam Steffey, Tim Stafford and others; and an all-star cast of vocalists, including Russell Moore, Dale Ann Bradley, Steve Gulley, Rickey Wasson, Ronnie Bowman, Bradley Walker, Carrie Hassler, Marty Raybon and Dave Adkins, who just may be the next big voice in bluegrass.
Hyperbole? Listen to the CD a time or two, then let me know.
But to me, the beauty of this project isn’t the assembly of talent. It’s the preservation of the darkest hours of our nation through songs that are heartbreaking, educational and inspirational all at the same time.
Try to listen to Dale Ann sing the story of Christmas in Savannah without shedding a tear as you hear about 90 Union soldiers from Michigan who rescue Christmas after “Santa couldn’t make it through General Sherman’s line.”
Hear Russell Moore tell of a New York woman who learns she’s a widow when she sees A Picture of Three Children in the newspaper and reads that the photograph was clutched by a soldier from the North as he died. Put yourself in her shoes and you feel the horror of war.
Or feel the admiration for a fellow human being who risks his own life to take a stand in Dave Adkins’ rendition of The River Man. This is the tale of a freed slave who worked in a foundry by day and put it all on the line when he “ran a secret freedom train by dark of night” to help other slaves find a taste of the freedom he enjoyed.
No matter which side your ancestors stood on 150 years ago, you’ll find stirring songs that cover the full range of emotions without being preachy or political. The overarching sentiment is expressed in the title cut, sung to perfection by Marty Raybon. God Didn’t Choose Sides tells of those from both the Blue and the Gray who gave their lives for what they believed in, only to be peacefully reunited on common ground in heaven.
But don’t stop with the music. Read the accompanying 16-page booklet that tells the stories behind the songs. In itself, that represents a stellar research and writing job by Jamie Lynn Brinkman.
And then get ready for more of the same. This project is billed as Vol. 1, with two more CDs in the planning stages.