Randall Poster may have the best job in the world, even if that job doesn’t really have a title. He oversees the music for television and film projects, immersing himself in various genres and traditions from prohibition jazz (Boardwalk Empire) to British invasion (Rushmore) to contemporary country (Country Strong).
Poster’s latest project is among his most ambitious. To mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, he recruited a range of roots and country artists — young and old, including Old Crow Medicine Show, Shovels & Rope, Pokey LaFarge, Jamey Johnson and Lee Ann Womack — to record a collection of songs from that era.
Rather than a dusty museum piece, Divided & United is alternately boisterous and melancholy, triumphant and sentimental. The artists examine the conflict from various perspectives: Northern and Southern, child and veteran, frightened soldiers headed to the front and worried wives left behind to manage the farm and raise the kids.
From his home in New York City, Poster spoke to CMT Edge about the challenges of working with 19th-century music, the joys of indulging his obsessions and the power of music to act as a time machine.
CMT Edge: How do these songs survive? They’re too old to have been recorded at the peak of their popularity.
Poster: There have been, over the decades, various collections of Civil War songs, and then there are folklorists who have put this stuff down. We did a lot of research, both with books and with records, and then some of the pieces came out of conversations with the artists themselves who had a particular tradition they were drawn to.
Loretta Lynn had the song that she wanted to do. Bryan Sutton was a primary correspondent of mine. … At certain points, I needed people to talk to about it, just by virtue of the fact that I was so consumed with it. My friends and family were looking at me strangely when, all of a sudden, I had this newfound obsession with Civil War music. Bryan and Vince Gill landed on “Dear Old Flag,” which I hadn’t stumbled on yet.
Was it difficult working with music that predates recording technology?
I also work on this show called Boardwalk Empire, so I’ve ventured into this world of music that had never been recorded. Specifically, it involves trying to find the music that had played in the silent movie houses, so we were working with sheet music. But there is an obviously strong interest in the Civil War among various groups, so if you scratch the surface, there is a lot of music to find, especially with the 150th anniversary.
That was the spark that pushed me to try to make this record. I’d been in Nashville working on a movie project, and I loved being there and working in that community. I was thinking about what I could do next and how I could engage the Nashville community. I came down to breakfast one day, and in The Tennessean, there’s an article about the anniversary. I thought, “This is great. I have five years to make this work!”
How important was it to strike a balance between Northern and Southern songs?
I don’t know that I thought there needed to be a balance, but I did want to make sure that we could include as many voices and points of view as possible in order to create an emotional mosaic. I knew that I needed to represent the North and the South, and I knew that I wanted to represent the home front battlefield.
I also wanted to do battle songs and histories and then focus on the great sentimental songs of the era. When I had the chance to consider the record in total, what seemed most impressive is that the songs are very direct. They feel very present. Sometimes when people take on a more antique music, they feel a need to put an old-timey veneer on it. But I think this is an unvarnished approach to the repertoire.
What we were trying to do was see who all we could gather under this great American tent and see if we could allow people to do some kind of emotional time-traveling. We wanted to get a sense of what it might have felt like to be in that predicament from various points of view. It’s always my ambition that the music on its own should tell the story.
Did you give the artists any specific instructions or guidelines?
When you’re doing something like this, the artists have to have some connection to the music. Otherwise, they become disinclined toward it. So my general direction is just to let your artistry come through and basically be yourself. As the record-making evolved, there was definitely a more bluegrass tinge to it than maybe I would have preconceived.
Do any songs stand out to you as particularly surprising or especially moving?
It changes. There’s just so much material. It depends on the time of day and the mood I find myself in. I find myself sustained by so many of these songs. … Not to prefer one of my children over another, but I’d say I’ve probably played that Jorma Kaukonen song [“The Mermaid Song”] more than any other. I’ve had it longer than most of them, as well, but I do keep going back to that one.
This album feels very current, I think because it plays into some trends that are popular now with the old-time and folk revivals. Even just looking at the track listing, it’s clear that this music still exerts an incredible influence on American culture.
I think that was what we were trying to get at. Just in terms of balancing it, we wanted to have artists with a range of ages. I think it’s great that we have artists who are in their 20s alongside artists who are in their 70s and 80s — with all the decades in between. We also wanted to keep connections where they existed in terms of father and sons, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives. I think that familial element impacts the spirit of the collection.