God Didn’t Choose Sides: Civil War True Stories about Real People, Volume 1
Rural Rhythm Records
4½ stars (out of 5)
By Aaron Keith Harris
The Civil War, or, as it’s more properly called, the War Between the States, has been the subject of several great bluegrass songs—”Legend of the Rebel Solider” by the Country Gentlemen, “Last Day at Gettysburg” by Larry Sparks, and “He Walked All the Way Home” by Blue Highway” come to mind—and this 13-track, 45-minute effort from Rural Rhythm Records adds to the list in a refreshing way.
On God Didn’t Choose Sides, executive producer Sam Passamano II employs a strong lineup of singers, musicians, and songwriters to create a dozen original songs (the album-closing hymn “There is a Fountain,” which gets a gentle, yet majestic reading from the Gap Creek Quartet, is the exception) about actual people who played a part, willingly or not, in a truly horrific war.
Paula Breedlove, Mark Brinkman, and Mike Evans, working in different combinations, share most of the writing credits, with Brad Davis, Ray Edwards, Terry Foust, Steve Gulley, and Tim Stafford also pitching in.
The product is some fine original tunes that offer neither the shallow cant that lionizes the politically motivated Lincoln and the butchers he employed as generals, nor romantic notions of the South, which was controlled by slaveholding oligarchs—the one percenters of the South, if you will—who allowed their blessed homeland to be attacked because they put their private interests ahead of it.
One of the best vocals on the disc, unsurprisingly, comes from Dale Ann Bradley on “Christmas in Savannah,” a tale of a group of Union soldiers from “General Sherman’s line” who brought yuletide provisions with mules dressed as reindeer to the residents of the besieged town. It’s a nice story that shows that even in the worst circumstances people find ways to be kind, but there’s no mention of the fact that Savannah was the lone city that General Sherman, one of America’s most shameful war criminals, didn’t put to the torch on his sadistic march across a defenseless south at the behest of Lincoln and Grant.
I know pointing out things like that aren’t the point of this project, but a little true contrast now and then between the actions of politicians and generals on one hand and ordinary folk on the other can only enhance the esteem we have for the latter.
There are a couple of songs that do that to some degree by pointing out the inhumane treatment of prisoners on both sides—the brooding “Providence Spring” from Tim Stafford and the deceptively soothing ghost story “The Lady in Gray” from Ronnie Bowman.
There are also stories of individuals doing the best to act bravely and honorably in situations where such actions seldom come to a good end: “I’m Almost Home” from Steve Gulley whose delivery embodies the snuffed-out joy of a soldier who leads one last charge only to die on the front steps of the home he had left to go fighting, Russell Moore bringing his sentimental tenor to “A Picture of Three Children” clutched in the hand of a dead solider, the Lonesome River Band performing “The Legend of Jennie Wade” in which three friends try to communicate over hundreds of miles to no avail, and Bradley Walker’s voice singing of one man’s “Last Day at Vicksburg” with stentorian richness.
We meet some other great characters too: the feisty “Old John Burns” from Ricky Wasson & Dwight McCall who turn in one of the ‘grassier cuts included here, Carrie Hassler’s melancholy “Carrie’s Graveyard Book” about a woman who honored the dead to an extent far beyond anyone could have asked her to do, and Dave Adkins’ soulful story of “The River Man” who risked his life repeatedly to help slaves cross the Ohio River.
My favorite track from this fine collection is “Rebel Hart,” from Brad Gulley, son of Steve Gulley and lead singer for Cumberland River. The upbeat track about a 16-year-old Virginia girl who used her feminine wiles and incredible courage to inflict improbable injury after injury on those who had invaded her country cries out for a movie version.
Before “There is a Fountain” closes things out, elder statesman Marty Raybon offers the title track with his characteristic humility, reminding us that the God of the Bible who was worshiped by those victimized could never have ordained an unnecessary war fought for political reasons that killed as many as 750,000 people. One wishes that a nation that had survived such an ordeal would have learned its most obvious lesson.