One of my favourite artists (Ben Glover), the period of history that fascinates me most (the American Civil War) and Southern Gothic, it’s a combination designed to have me drooling at the mouth. The brainchild of producer Neilson Hubbard in collaboration with Glover and fellow singer-songwriter Joshua Britt, the album and its accompanying documentary (see below) are rooted in Civil War history, specifically the First Kentucky Brigade (which earned its titular nickname when, having suffered heavy losses in a battle, the commander rode among the survivors crying out “My poor orphans! My poor orphans” ) and Octagon Hall, a plantation house in Franklin, Kentucky built by Confederate sympathiser Andrew Jackson Caldwell.
At first a camp site for the Confederate army after the withdrawal from Bowling Green, it was then occupied by Union troops, who abused the family and their servants and regularly ransacked the place searching for hiding enemy soldiers. It’s also described as one of the most haunted sites in America, including the ghost of a slave girl who burned to death in the fireplace while preparing a meal.
However, inspired by and based on the writings of soldiers from the Orphan Brigade and others who fought in the area, the album, which was actually recorded at the Hall over the course of six months, is not actually a ghost story, rather an exploration of and insight into the experiences of those who lived through the events that took place in the area. As such, it’s a sort of more specifically focused companion piece to White Mansions, the Confederacy concept album written by Paul Kennerley.
Following the short piano and slide instrumental Octagon Hall Prelude, it heads into Pale Horse, Britt’s mandolin complementing the military march beat snare, with its swelling chorus and the theme-setting line “We’re known forever by the tracks we leave.”
Glover’s joined by Kim Richey and Heather Donegan for a rumbustious whooping and clanking Trouble My Heart (Oh Harriett), Harriett being Caldwell’s widow and one of the house’s ghosts who apparently developed a crush on Glover during the recordings. The trio’s then augmented by Gretchen Peters on I’ve Seen The Elephant, a spooked prickly banjo carnival waltzer about the ugliness of war and “men chopped up into pieces of glory”.
As you’d imagine, the war looms large in several of the songs. Kim Richey takes lead on The Story You Tell Yourself, a brooding, mandolin-accompanied song with universal lyrics about how we justify the horrors we inflict in the fight for whatever flag or cause we follow. That’s immediately followed by We Were Marching On Christmas Day, the bells ringing as, conjuring up the hardships of the foot soldiers, Glover offers up the prayer “if this be my last Noel, don’t let my Kentucky blood spill into hell. Bethlehem, set me free, by your star in the sky I will look to thee.”
Equally specific, nodding to Civil War anthem The Battle Cry of Freedom, Britt steps up to offer the Union perspective with the marching mid-tempo Americana of Good Old Flag, ready to fly the stars and stripes “in Tennessee till no free man is poor”, but also, in the last, verse looking to eventual reconciliation and a time to “spread kindness to our brothers wherever they may roam.”
There’s more oblique references too. Featuring Hubbard on lead vocals, Last June Light is a gently dappled close harmonies lament for the changing world with its chorus image of “Boys on the field marching. Gonna grow up some day. Boys on the field marching. Gonna be them some day” while the achingly lovely Goodnight Mary sees Hubbard and Richey duetting on dreamy bittersweet lullaby sung by the ghost of the child’s father who, having died in battle, tells her to hold on her memories.
It’s often forgotten that the war didn’t just involve Americans and Paddy’s Lamentation is Glover’s single voice and guitar arrangement of a traditional song about the Irish who travelled to America to escape starvation and find fortune only to wind up fighting for Lincoln. The liner notes also observe that Whistling Walk, a jaunty cornet, guitar and whistle instrumental, is inspired by how slaves at the Hall were ordered to whistle while carrying food to the house in order to prevent them eating any of it.
Rooted in the period, there’s stylistic diversity too. Cursed Be The Wanderer is a robust shanty stomp with plenty of whoa ho ho, chanted verses, banging drum and blazing fiddle while the deceptively titled Sweetheart is a handclapping, massed voice trumpet braying, revival tent gospel calling for relief from trials and tribulations.
The collection closes with The Orphans, Glover and Donegan sharing verses and everyone piling in on the chorus for a swelling, brass burnished anthemic homage to the soldiers who gave the album its name, but, as Glover says, in its “remember us, remember us” refrain, also a plea to the universe to never forget the cost of war and its curse on the land wherever it is fought. Outstanding.
Review by: Mike Davies
Soundtrack To A Ghost Story is Out Now. Order it via Amazon.