“Everyone loves a good ghost story,” producer Neilson Hubbard says, explaining the rhymes and reasons behind his latest project, The Orphan Brigade: Soundtrack to a Ghost Story. “People seem fascinated. People want to know more about it. I think that is the same way we got hooked into the project. You get drawn in by this mystery, but in the end it’s not about whether it’s real or not.” Hubbard, along with singer/songwriters Joshua Britt and Ben Glover, made this new album and its companion documentary about an hour north of Nashville in Franklin, Kentucky, at the Octagon Hall — a Civil War-era plantation house which just so happens to be haunted.
So how did three Nashville musicians find themselves writing songs about ghosts in a haunted house? Britt grew up in Franklin and his uncle ran the Octagon Hall as a Civil War Museum when he was growing up. But, as a kid romping through the fields, he never spent much time inside the house. “When I went back after all these years,” he says, “it felt like stepping into an old, distant memory. Even during the first visit, we started talking about recording music in that place because it’s pretty obvious that the house has some unique sound characteristics. The Octagon Hall has a big heaviness to it, just in the architecture, but also because the place is full of a history filled with slavery and death and personal tragedies.” Like the rest of the South, the Octagon Hall has a complicated, often tragic history.
The house was built by Andrew Jackson Caldwell, a Confederate sympathizer, in the mid-1800s. He lived there until his death in 1866, and his second wife Harriet stayed on until 1918. Taking the nickname of the First Kentucky Brigade as their own, Hubbard, Britt, and Glover looked to the Hall’s history for inspiration. “We had some writings by soldiers who were part of the Orphan Brigade who were stationed near Octagon Hall during the Civil War,” Glover offers. “These, along with other journals and poetry written by those who fought in this area, gave us very personal and intimate accounts of their experiences. Those resources allowed us to have a glimpse of what it must have been like for them and gave us the opportunity to stand in their shoes via their words.”
He continues, “Even though we were writing about people from a different era, we were still writing about themes that are as relevant today as they were in the 1800s — love, loss, war, peace, death, fear, joy… We were placing ourselves in their shoes, but we were still applying our own contemporary experiences to the songs. History has a way of romanticizing people and moulding them into characters in a way that the present can’t.”
Hubbard agrees, “It started with a fascination and then it grew into a much wider story. We were talking about much more than ghosts and history. We were talking about bigger and wider themes that reach into the core of us all, personally. In an effort to explain that process, we realized we were making a documentary. We kept going back to the house to film segments about the process. After about eight months, we had a film. The house is a symbol for how we are haunted by the things that we can’t let go of. Therefore, the journey of the record and film is one of inward self-reflection, not just a ghost hunt.”
They might not have been hunting ghosts, but ghosts they did find… some of which got caught on tape. As Britt tells it, “When we first went up there, I would always try to explain things away or not think about it just so I could keep writing there without being scared to go in. It was fun for a while — a group of people all hearing what sounded like feet walking on the floor upstairs. I didn’t try to explain it or even think about it outside of that, really. As time went on, it definitely started to get to me… eventually hearing giant crashes and voices when no one was there. I was there in a group of four to five people when we took a picture of an empty hallway and there was a little girl on the screen. I was looking at the dark empty place when he snapped the picture and saw it on his screen right then so I know it’s not messed with.”
To write, record, and film, the trio — along with visitations from Gretchen Peters, Kim Richey, Carey Ott, and others — set up camp (and gear) in the Octagon Hall.
Right out of the gate, “Pale Horse” sounds the shibboleth in a gentle declaration: “We’re known forever by the tracks we leave.” The album’s first single, “Trouble My Heart (Oh Harriet),” is up next and wastes no time making its point. Here, Glover sounds like a roadside prophet being baptized in a river and pleading with a demon to leave him be. And, in fact, that’s not far off the mark. On one of Glover’s visits to the house, some paranormal investigators claimed to have picked up Harriet’s presence and said she had taken a liking to Glover. “The investigators told us that Harriet was very flattered about the attention she was getting in the song and that she was very excited to be the inspiration,” Glover recounts. The ghost of Harriet had a little crush.
Further into the collection, Hubbard’s “Don’t Take My Sweetheart Away” lifts the spirit of revival way up high before “Last June Light” drops its dreams of war on the ground. Richey steps up to “The Story You Tell Yourself” which leans into the soldiers’ tales to make both literal and metaphorical points about justifying our actions.
The historical themes carry through “We Were Marching on Christmas Day,” “Good Old Flag,” “Cursed Be the Wanderer,” and “Whistling Walk” which relates to a story that the Octagon Hall slaves were made to whistle while carrying food so their owners would know they weren’t eating as they walked to the house. ”Paddy’s Lamentation,” an Irish folk ballad, stands as the only traditional among the collection of 13 originals composed and recorded by Britt, Glover, and Hubbard over the course of six months.
“The energy of the house was what fueled the writing and recording of this project,” Glover says. “The house was incredibly giving from the word go. We felt as if it was giving us the songs — it wanted to express itself via the music and we were just conduits. It’s as if the songs were just pouring out of the walls, and that was a blessing. I’m sure that, if the inhabitants didn’t want us there, they could have easily complicated things during the recording process, but they seemed to very encouraging of it all.”
Hubbard adds, “[We had] a one-time chance to capture something. It wouldn’t sound the same if we went tomorrow and did it again. That’s what I love about making art in this way. It is a moment. We captured the feeling and essence of that place. We got lucky.”