BY THE SOUTHERN AUTHOR/ACTOR/HIT SONGWRITER MARSHALL CHAPMAN.
Perhaps you’ve heard the story. An artist presents his work to Michelangelo for evaluation. Michelangelo studies the paintings, and then proclaims, “They’re beautiful. But where’s the madness?”
I often find myself asking the same question whenever I hear a new CD. Okay, sounds great ... nice songs ... good singing, etc. ... but ... WHERE’S THE MADNESS?! It’s rare I hear anything these days that completely blows me away. Whenever I do, I want to weep for joy.
Okay. I digress.
A few months ago, I was standing in the checkout line at Publix behind a man who looked familiar. As it turned out, the man was Jim Demain, Nashville’s sound-mastering guru. I know Jim fairly well, as we’ve worked together on occasion.
“So what’ve you been up to?” I asked, expecting to hear, Oh, you know. Same old, same old. Instead, Jim became quite animated as he began telling me about a recent project. “Man, it was so cool!” he said. “These guys wrote and recorded an entire album in a haunted house!” When he mentioned singer-songwriter-producer Neilson Hubbard, it was my turn to get excited. “Oh my God, I just recorded some songs with Neilson!” I can’t remember what all was said after that. Only that I texted Neilson about running into Jim as soon as I got back to my car.
Next thing I know, Neilson and I are enjoying a late breakfast at a diner in East Nashville. In his sweetly soulful and unassuming way, he begins to tell me about the project. Channeling spirits and writing songs? Apparitions appearing uninvited in photographs? I can’t get enough.
A day or so later, a CD arrives in the mail. It’s called THE ORPHAN BRIGADE: Soundtrack to a Ghost Story. That evening, I started listening. A brief piano/slide-guitar prelude sets the tone. Followed by a short space of silence. Like a needle being lifted from a record then set back down. A military march ensues—nothing heavy. (This album is way too cool for that.) A light snare/bass/guitar beat invites us along for the ride. A jaunty mandolin (played by Joshua Britt) seduces us into thinking everything’s going to be okay. At least for now. As I listen to the first verse of “Pale Horse,” a line jumps out. We’re known forever by the tracks we leave. I want to hear the line again. The song delivers.
I am fully aware that these songs were inspired by a time and place. Namely, the Civil War as it affected the inhabitants of OCTAGON HALL, a plantation house standing fifty miles north of Nashville near Franklin, Kentucky. The tragedy surrounding this place is palpable in each song. I google “Octagon Hall.” Several sites proclaim it “one of the most terrifying places in America.” So who would go to such a place? Let alone, to write and record an album? Surely they must be mad! As “Pale Horse” lifts into its stratospheric chorus, I find myself lost in this music.
The late Hall-of-Fame songwriter Doc Pomus once said there’re only two kinds of songs—those that have soul and those that don’t. Okay. So the songs on Orphan Brigade have soul. But they also have a sexy desperation that stems, I imagine, from the gut-wrenching times that inspired them. Which brings us to “Trouble My Heart (Oh Harriet),” a passionate, last-call-for-love lament perfectly executed by Ben Glover on lead vocal (with vocal touches from Kim Richey and Heather Donegan). The underlying drum beat soon escalates into something akin to a whiplash during a muscular mandolin instrumental (again, Joshua Britt) that would sound right at home on “Sympathy for the Devil.” And who needs a chorus when you can have strategically placed, pants-on-fire WHOOOHs.
Now what? A banjo waltz about the horrors of war? Why not? “I’ve Seen the Elephant” starts out with just that—a simple banjo lick. But then, like war, it escalates into something else. Irish-born Ben Glover again delivers a searing vocal that takes us there. But not before a good measure of lush la-las and oohs (provided by Kim Richey, Gretchen Peters, and Heather Donegan) elevate the entire proceedings to anthem status. At this point, Orphan Brigade is starting to remind me of The Dark Side of the Moon.
I imagine PINK FLOYD ON MOONSHINE.
Another left turn. One that lifts the spirit. “Don’t Take My Sweetheart Away” is a rivival romp delivered with a pentecostal fervor that would make Pops Staples proud.
Finally, we’re allowed to exhale, then breathe in the lovely “Last June Light.” This ballad (sung here by Neilson Hubbard) tells the story of a young boy who sees his world changing around him as it gears up for war. Naturally, he dreams of one day being a soldier.
I admit. I’m old school. I believe sequencing is important when making an album. Orphan Brigade is brilliant in that respect. I recommend listening to it from beginning to end as a complete work of art. But if you absolutely must download a track here and there for your iPod, it can accommodate that. The songs are that good.
Speaking of good songs, “The Story You Tell Yourself” (beautifully sung here by Kim Richey) brought me to tears. It’s a heartbreaker, for sure. With its universal theme—the idea that our truth is whatever we tell ourselves— it packs a wallop. Our truth might not be The Truth, but it’s all we’ve got. It’s what we tell ourselves in order to kill in the name of honor ... or to be happy in the midst of hardship. It frees us to commit any act of terror (or love) we can conjure up, depending on the story we tell ourselves.
You don’t have to know the back-stories to enjoy the songs on Orphan Brigade. These songs stand alone. For example, I could hear “The Story You Tell Yourself” playing as the final credits roll in the movie, American Sniper.
“We Were Marching on Christmas Day” perfectly captures the ironic tragedy of young men marching into battle on the very day that celebrates the birth of the Prince of Peace. Young men with mortality on their minds. As I envision them marching through the snow and the mud, an Oscar Wilde quote comes to mind.
“WE’RE ALL IN THE GUTTER, BUT SOME OF US ARE LOOKING AT THE STARS.”
When was the last time you heard a whistling song on an album? The next track delivers just that. “Whistling Walk” is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with an edge. On the surface, the whistling sounds cheerful. But haunting oohs and a muted trumpet combine to create a vibe that is both celebratory and tragic. Naturally, there’s a story. (Isn’t there always?) It is said that the slaves at Octagon Hall, while carrying food to the big house, were required to whistle so their owners would know they weren’t eating the food for themselves.
Slavery was never mentioned as a cause of the Civil War in the Jim Crow South I grew up in. We were told the war was about States’ Rights. How dare those Damn Yankees infringe on our State’s Rights! Never mind that one of those “rights” allowed one human being to own another. As one of my conservative uncles admitted only recently, “The Civil War was about slavery and nothing more.”
On that note, we segue into “Good Old Flag” (sung here by Kentucky native Joshua Britt) which presents the Union side of the war. An idealistic call for equal rights, the song closes with a plea to end the fighting so the healing can begin.
The weariness and insanity of war seem to culminate in “Cursed Be the Wanderer.” The music moves from a chant-march to a maniacal jig that features a fiddle from Hell ... or maybe Ireland. I like to think Ireland, since the next song—”Paddy’s Lamentation”—is an Irish folk ballad sung by Irish-born Ben Glover. Paddy is an Irish emigrant who has come to America to escape famine and starvation in his native land, only to find himself embroiled in a war not of his own making. Where they “shove a gun” into his hands to fight for Lincoln. The agony of Paddy’s situation is perfectly captured in Glover’s world-weary vocal and the single guitar accompaniment.
Can ghosts sing lullabies? After listening to “Goodnight Mary” (beautifully rendered by Nelson Hubbard and Kim Ritchey), we learn that they can.
The final track—”The Orphans”—is a forget-me-not anthem sung as a tribute to the Orphan Brigade, a group of Confederates from Kentucky who suffered heavy losses during the war. The sentiment here is universal. After all, who doesn’t want to be remembered? It’s why artists create art. I once heard someone say, “GREAT ARTISTS HAVE AN ORPHAN’S HEART.” To create this masterpiece, these musicians and songwriters had to become what they strove to create—an orphan brigade.
This is an album to experience. To get lost in. Perhaps never to return. - MARSHALL CHAPMAN