West Virginia Musicians Commemorate Civil War Battle With “The Fields Of Gettysburg”

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This weekend, audience members at Marietta's Adelphia Music Hall will be transported back in time when several of West Virginia's finest musicians present The Fields of Gettysburg, a song cycle by Vienna singer-songwriter John Walsh.

Almost five years in the making, The Fields of Gettysburg stems from Walsh's longtime interest in the Civil War and his friendship with fellow musicians Todd Burge and Bill White.

With some help from top-notch players, including Tim O'Brien, Larry Groce and members of the Mountain Stage band, Walsh's musical dream was finally realized when the album was released last month.

I caught up with John Walsh to discuss the album, the musicians and his hopes for The Fields of Gettysburg.

BG: What inspired you to start this project?

JW: I didn't really gain more than a passing interest in Civil War history until I was serving in the US Air Force from 1987-1996. At that point, military history was always a part of my professional training and Ken Burns' Civil War series came out on PBS around that time. That series sparked a serious interest in learning more about this point in history for me. I became focused on U.S. Grant for a research paper and he really served as a "gateway" character into my still-fervent American Civil War fascination.

BG: Why did you choose the Battle of Gettysburg as the subject matter for the album?

JW: For almost as long as I've been interested in the Civil War, I have been focused on the Gettysburg saga. It's such a complex story with an unbelievable "cast" of characters–from Robert E. Lee to the unfortunate Jennie Wade, who is a character in The Fields of Gettysburg.

A couple of the generals evolved into role models for me: Union General John Buford and Confederate General James Longstreet. I have studied both of these men pretty intently and admire each equally, primarily because of their moral fortitude and earnest and ethical approach to facing enormous hardship. So, The Fields of Gettysburg started with these two characters in mind.

BG: So you've been interested in this topic for quite some time; when did you actually start working on the album?

JW: It wasn't until 2008 that I became inspired to put together some kind of musical story based upon certain events and people involved in Gettysburg. I have an article on The FOG Blog that explains that moment of inspiration:

Indeed, there are numerous fascinatingly complex personalities that emanate from both sides of the conflict. Generals Buford & Longstreet, for example, I greatly and equally admire. To me, they represent the moral bookends at the Battle of Gettysburg. Other American giants toiled on the fields of Gettysburg: Robert E. Lee, Joshua Chamberlain, George Meade, JEB Stuart, John Reynolds, Winfield Hancock, George Pickett, and John Bell Hood…to name a few. But none of those struck as personal of a chord with me more so than Longstreet & Buford.

In fact, the first time I visited Gettysburg, we approached from the west and wound up coming straight down Route 30/Chambersburg Road (a.k.a., the Cashtown Road) into town. The kids needed a restroom break and we stopped at a little rest area that turned out to be the Guide Station. Directly across the Cashtown Road stand the statues of both Brigadier General John Buford and Major General John Reynolds.

I realized that we had inadvertently started our journey to Gettysburg exactly where the battle itself had begun. When the kids were ready, we went across to see the monuments. I was overwhelmed standing at that place…I could feel the gravity of the thousands of souls who flooded into Gettysburg in July of 1863. I felt something immeasurable and indescribable–a mix of respect, honor, humility, and reverence. It was just one of those unique moments in life where it all came into focus and I realized how much bigger all of it is than me.

At that moment, somewhere in my subconscious, the seed for The Fields of Gettysburg was planted. I also decided, from that experience, that the song cycle would start there, at dawn on July 1, 1863, with General Buford studying the horizon up the Cashtown Road. I started working on the project–slowly–at that point in the summer of 2008. While I was dreaming up chord progressions and melodies, I did a lot of research and reading to ensure I had my facts straight.

My intent was–and is–to honor the history while bringing the story to life by developing the personalities of the characters for the listeners. These characters of The Fields of Gettysburg were all very interesting people in very different ways, brought together by the horrendous circumstance of The Battle of Gettysburg. I finished writing the song cycle about a year ago, so I'd say four solid years elapsed during the creation of The Fields of Gettysburg.

BG: You've got some very talented people on this album. How did this collaboration come about?

JW: Yes, I agree…a fabulous array of talent on this record. I have played with several before and some not. When I finished the song cycle, I invited two of my close musical friends, Todd Burge and Bill White, to my house to hear the song cycle in its raw form. I have been playing music with Bill White since 1983. Todd and I have worked together musically in different capacities since around 1999. I thought I had something special going on with The Fields of Gettysburg, but I wanted these two guys to hear it and give me the real feedback I knew they would give me.

Both were very enthusiastic about it once I played it for them. In addition to starting to dream up arrangements and potential players for the record we would surely make, Todd wanted to help produce it. Starting that evening thinking about putting together a pretty stripped-down acoustic album, I came away very excited about Todd and Bill's enthusiasm.

BG: In addition to Bill and Todd, you've got some of West Virginia's best musicians, including players from the Mountain Stage band.

JW: We decided we needed Ted Harrison (bass), Michael Lipton (guitars), and Ammed Solomon (drums) as "the band," in addition to Bill (keys) and me (guitars/mandolin). I had played with Michael and Ted a few times before and was well aware of their respective prowess, but didn't know Ammed. What a percussionist he is! Perfect for this record.

BG: Todd's been on Mountain Stage several times. Is that how Larry Groce came on board?

JW: Yes. As we discussed who we might ask to narrate, Larry Groce was on top of the list from day one. Todd, in addition to the gents in the rhythm section, has known and worked with Larry for years. I had the opportunity to play a Bob Dylan tribute with him last year, but otherwise didn't know him personally. Todd familiarized Larry with the concept and he loved the idea and the script and agreed to narrate pretty early on. We hadn't recorded a note yet and Todd was earning his keep as co-producer already.

BG: I'm guessing Tim O'Brien became involved through Todd as well.

JW: We needed a fiddle on a few of the songs and were having some difficulty nailing a player down locally. I asked Todd at some point late last year, "How crazy would it be to ask Tim O'Brien if he would like to play the fiddle parts on the record?" Todd has been a long-time musical confidant of Tim's; in fact, they toured together during 2011/2012 for a while. Todd made the contact, Tim got on board and I was one happy camper! I did play a gig with both of them about two years ago as the opener to the opener…not sure if anyone remembers that except me.

BG: Who are the singers on the album?

JW: As for vocalists, we had Todd and myself to play the roles of the generals, but we needed four other vocalists for the remaining characters. David George, my friend and musical collaborator since junior high school, and I began searching for and demo-testing vocalists in his River Rat Studio in Marietta. We selected the two female parts pretty quickly. DJ Archer sings the part of Jennie Wade. I've known her since she was a young kid singing in our church on Sundays.

Jessica Baldwin, a voice and piano coach/instructor by day and jazz-fusion musician by night, sings Mary Wade. I knew of Jessica, but did not know her. I invited her to give the Mary Wade song a whirl. Her demo was magical and her performance on The Fields of Gettysburg is one of the greatest moments in my musical history.

The two male voices were a little tougher to find. Then, I received an email from Justin Arthur asking if we were still looking for vocalists. He said "two of my favorite things are music and civil war history…" We invited him over to the studio. Once he sang a couple tunes, we knew we had our Wesley Culp. Justin is the character actor of the record. He actually visited Gettysburg after getting the part on the record and made it a point to get some meditation time in on Culp's Hill, which he sings about on the track "Same Hill."

Finally, by way of a recommendation from Ron Sowell (Mountain Stage band leader), we came upon Colton Pack to sing Jack Skelly. Colton is just 18 years old but has the voice of a Nashville star. He is wonderfully gifted and gives perfect voice to Jack Skelly's two songs on the record.

One side note: I originally recorded the entire record on my iPhone at my house and passed around these rough tracks for folks to learn the songs and determine the keys they wanted to sing in, etc. It was pretty rustic, but it worked!

BG: From the credits, it looks like the album was recorded in a bunch of different studios. What was it like to assemble the record piece by piece, sometimes long-distance?

JW: We recorded the band tracks with Michael, Ted, Ammed and me at Josh Antonuccio's 3 Elliott Studio in Athens in early November 2012. Then, over the course of November 2012 to February 2013, we did the vocal tracks, keyboards (Bill White), mandolin, nylon string guitar, extra guitars, harmonica (Todd Burge), penny whistle (Julie Zickefoose) and cellos (Cynthia Puls) back in Marietta at Dave's River Rat Studio. David George also appears in a couple of cameo guitar and piano passages. Larry did his tracks in Charleston and Tim did his in Nashville. With the miracle of wav files and Dropbox, we pulled the tracks together. Nine of the completed tracks were mixed at 3 Elliott and the remaining three were mixed at River Rat.

The incomparable Don Dixon provided mastering of the mixed record (and yes, he is another friend of Todd's). Let me just say that all of these folks are great people and poured themselves into the process of creating The Fields of Gettysburg. It shows in the beautiful record that resulted. And, no, I don't mind saying that…it is a beautiful record because of these fine people who brought their souls skills to the table.

BG: You've got your first Fields of Gettysburg live performance coming up this weekend. Who will be playing with you?

JW: We're scheduled for Saturday, April 27 at The Adelphia Music Hall in Marietta. Almost all the players and every one of the vocalists will be there for that show. Todd and I have the feelers out to do some more live performances throughout 2013, but nothing solid yet.

BG: What can we expect from you in the future?

JW: I haven't considered what's next yet. I want to see where this project can go. We are in the actual sesquicentennial year of The Battle of Gettysburg. This is a timeless story and it's a true one. As I mentioned, it also happens to be a beautiful record. I want to get this out to as many folks who will listen. I know this song cycle will bring enjoyment to the listener, while at the same time, honor this piece of American History and the people who sacrificed so much making that history, setting the stage for the way of life we relish today.

The Fields of Gettysburg is available as a download at http://johnawalsh.bandcamp.com/album/the-fields-of-gettysburg.