Making the Music of History
“I write books, not music,” I told the big man with the guitar. “I’m a historian, not a songwriter.”
Gary Rue — St. Mary’s County composer, musician and proprietor of the small recording company Millstone Landing Productions — had invited me to step outside my comfort zone.
“Write the lyrics for a CD album on the War of 1812,” he said. “I’ll do the rest.”
“It’s the bicentennial, and all anyone knows of it,” he argued, “is the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ and ‘The Battle of New Orleans,’ that old ballad Johnny Horton sang decades ago.”
Rue certainly had the chops for the project.
Hear a sample of
He’d trained at the Hartford Conservatory of Music in Connecticut before setting out with his soon-to-be-wife Janet. Following wherever music took them, both performing and teaching and occasionally opening for such legendary groups as The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, they lived the lives of musical vagabonds. When the first of three daughters came on the scene, he chose the more structured life of an entrepreneur in the building trades. His first steps were purchasing and rebuilding his late father’s home at Millstone Landing.
By day he ran his business. By night, he played his music, sometimes solo but more often with the Smoke Creek Rounders at local stages, festivals and nightspots. In 2010 his first solo album American to Me was released to much praise, with several cuts sought for publication by Nashville.
If he had the music, I had the lore. The War of 1812 in Maryland, which saw more action, great and small, than any other state in the Union, was filled with countless untold tales of drama, heroism, cowardice, valor and stupidity. I knew the stories and I loved to tell them.
Charlie Ball, a third-generation slave in Calvert County, was sold away from his family to a South Carolina cotton planter, then to a brutal Georgia slave-owner. Ball escaped and returned to the Tidewater to join Commodore Joshua Barney’s Chesapeake Flotilla to fight against the British and for his freedom.
Mary Pickersgill sewed that grand flag the Star Spangled Banner, the same that would inspire Georgetown lawyer Francis Scott Key to write the poem that became our National Anthem.
Raven-haired beauty Kitty Knight, who had danced with George Washington, defied an army of British Marines to save her home on the Sassafras River. It still stands.
Irish John O’Neel manned a cannon alone against a British army at the Maryland port of Havre de Grace.
So I said yes. I’d come up with the tales and write the lyrics. How hard could it be? All I had to do was stretch my comfort zone a bit.
From Story to Song
We started with a place on old Queenstown Road they once called Slippery Hill, where men came to fight in the dawn’s early light for their country some blood to spill …
It was hard.
I struggled to write lyrics for a new song a week, even as Gary labored, often until 3 or 4am, to compose and arrange the music. At weekly meetings in his studio we critiqued, remodeled, refit, rescored and honed each piece to what we considered perfection, then did it again and again.
One by one the songs — of the men and women, slaves and freemen, soldiers and sailors — took on a reality of their own, each with a unique feel and style in a sound we called Americana. It was a sweet and curious blend of bluegrass, folk, country and traditional ballads with a hint of Celtic.
In Pride of Baltimore, we told the story of Captain Tom Boyle and the Maryland privateer Chasseur, which single-handedly laid a blockade on England’s shores, causing general panic from Liverpool to London.
“1812” told of our new nation’s deep divisions at going to war, the attack on freedom of the press and the mob torture of Revolutionary War hero Lighthorse Harry Lee, father of Robert E. Lee.
“City on the Hill” recounted the British burning of America’s infant capital, the rebirth of the city and a new nation.
Laying It Down
As new songs were composed, completed ones were recorded by Gary and sound engineer Keith Hanracher at his KMH Recording Studio in Lusby. Gary played guitar, dobro and banjo — plus rich vocal interpretation of the words I had written.
To help put flesh on the musical bone, he recruited great musicians. Indiana fiddler Michael Cleveland, nine-time-designee by the American Bluegrass Association as best fiddler in the nation, made his instrument cry and laugh at the same time. James Fowler, Naval Academy Band bass player, added incomparable texture to each piece. Cellist Sue Kuhaneck and percussionist Kevin Stevens, both of the Cosmic Orchestra, added depth and life to the collection.
Each artist was recorded on individual tracks, which were then edited and mixed.
“Sting Like a Wasp” related the against-all-odds fight of Commodore Barney, who defied the mighty Royal Navy with a mosquito fleet of armed barges on the Patuxent River.
“Sharpshooters” honored teenage privates Daniel Wells and Henry McComas, patriot martyrs who helped turn back the foe at the Battle of North Point by bringing down the enemy commander.
The concluding piece of the album, a beautiful orchestral called “The Peace,” commemorates the Treaty of Ghent, signed on Christmas Day 1815, that ended the war and began 200 years of amity between Great Britain and the United States.
Stepping out of my comfort zone brought me an astonishing shared reward. On June 18, the 200th anniversary of President Madison’s Declaration of War against the mightiest naval and military power on earth, our CD album, 1812: Tide of War, 10 months in creation, was sent for production.
On Aug. 16, hear 1812: Tide of War’s premier live performance with music by Gary Rue and associates and Shomette’s narration. Hosted by the Calvert County Historical Society 7pm at St. John Vianney Family Life Center. Prince Frederick: 410-535-2452.
Find the album and sound links at http://garyruesmusic.com/fr_home.cfm.