Inspired by the Civil War's 150th anniversary, a Hollywood music supervisor joined forces with some of Nashville's most recognizable stars to create an album meant to honor the legacies of Music City and of the nation's defining war.
It's an album made as far outside the conventional Music Row formula as it gets.
At 32 songs, "Divided & United" is approximately triple the length of the typical album, and it represents music from several different genres: country, bluegrass, folk, Americana, blues and gospel. It was produced by Randall Poster, who has largely made his living picking songs for films, and it will be released next month by a New York independent record label co-founded by Dave Matthews from the Dave Matthews Band.
And then there are the songwriters, who wrote the songs not for today's audience, but for 1860s when people consumed music by way of piano sheet music, blackface minstrel stages and on Civil War camp sites.
Poster has overseen the soundtracks for films by luminary directors such as Martin Scorsese and Wes Anderson, and for box office hits like "Meet the Parents." On "Divided & United," due out Nov. 5, he paired songs from 150 years ago with a list of legends (Cowboy Jack Clement, Loretta Lynn, Ralph Stanley, Dolly Parton), rising stars (Shovels & Rope, Pokey LaFarge, Carolina Chocolate Drops) and established artists (Vince Gill, Jamey Johnson, Old Crow Medicine Show), among many others.
The result, Poster hopes, is an album that pays tribute to Nashville's proud musical legacy and to the war that abolished slavery, left more than 700,000 people dead and ultimately united the nation.
"I am overwhelmed by the community's respect for musical legacy," Poster said. "I think that's what really keeps drawing me to Nashville — this respect and this commitment to maintaining the legacy.
"That's what hopefully I was trying to do in 'Divided & United,' was to celebrate traditions, not only the traditions of the music of the Civil War, but by putting together artists where if you created the family tree of these artists, it takes you every direction. You're three or four degrees of separation from the likes of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family and Elvis Presley."
Newspaper clip was inspiration
The seed for making "Divided & United" was planted in Poster's brain in 2009, when he was in Nashville putting together the soundtrack for the film "Country Strong." Poster said he read an article in The Tennessean about the upcoming 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
"So it dawned on me that, if I focused on the traditional music of the Civil War, not only would it give me another opportunity to work with some of the people in Nashville, but also I figured I had five years to try to get it together," Poster said.
Poster's background is not as a musician. Shortly after finishing college, he wrote and produced an independent film released in 1990 called "A Matter of Degrees," which centered on a college radio station. The film didn't perform well commercially, but the soundtrack, which featured the Lemonheads, the Pixies and Yo La Tengo, garnered attention.
Poster went on to pick the music for each of Anderson's films, which include "The Royal Tenenbaums," "Rushmore" and "Moonrise Kingdom." He has nearly 100 film credits as music supervisor or consultant.
Research led to obscure songs
For "Divided & United," Poster started by researching the songs of the Civil War era. The songs primarily came from professional songwriters from the era, who wrote for blackface minstrel stages, composed sheet music that families played in their homes on pianos. He said many of the songs aren't directly about the war, but soldiers would have "carried them into the battlefield." The blackface minstrel performances involved white actors portraying African-American characters and were considered edgy and progressive during their time.
After selecting the songs, the next step was finding performers.
"Then you put together a wish list of artists you'd like to hear sing these songs," he said. "I guess really, to be honest, I think a lot of the impetus is Lee Ann Womack is my favorite country singer. I just wanted to find something I could do with Lee Ann, I think, was one of the selfish aspects of it."
Some of the songs Poster suggested to the artists, while other artists made their own choice from a list he compiled. Still others brought their own song to the album. All told, the album took about a year to record, and the artists would typically spend about one day in the studio, Poster said.
Essential event in American history
Princeton University history professor Sean Wilentz, who wrote the liner notes for the album, said "Divided & United" distinguishes itself from other Civil War-inspired projects because it steers clear of the proverbial ballads and marches that most associate with the war. In their place are songs from 1860s songwriters and other selections that Wilentz said will be new to listeners.
"They moved off of the greatest hits of the Civil War," Wilentz said, adding that the war has inspired music over the last 150 years because it was the essential event in American history.
"It was traumatic: 750,000 people were killed. The greatest issues facing the country — race relations, states' rights, what kind of a democracy we ought to be — those kinds of experiences filled with bravery, heroism, cowardice, loss. It's all there. These are the great themes of American music."
Will audiences relate to the songs? Old Crow Medicine Show's Critter Fuqua thinks so. Fuqua, whose attachment to the Civil War has led him to participate in re-enactments across the South, said the band played its song off the record, "Marching Through Georgia," at a recent show in the Peach State.
Although the song is about the infamous Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman brutally leading his soldiers from Atlanta to the Georgia coast, the audience was dancing and singing along during the performance.
"We played that song in Georgia, and people loved it," Fuqua said. "Maybe they just heard 'Marching through Georgia,' but really it was Sherman tearing through and breaking the back of the South.
"The Civil War is a funny war — it was instant sort of memory making that kind of made it more palatable because it was so awful. I think there's this nostalgia, a kind of mythology, and it still carries over."