Friday, November 20, 2015

An Interview with Singer/Songwriter Clark Hansbarger

Like many readers, I enjoy all types of music. When it comes to the Civil War, I tend to focus on recordings of songs from the era by the 2nd South Carolina String Band, the Federal City Brass Band, and other such groups. Then again, I have also become a fan of the contemporary Civil War songs of the 1861 Project. Last year I received an email from singer/songwriter Clark Hansbarger, who told me about his folk rock CD, Dream of a Good Death. This recording of original songs follows Confederate soldiers throughout the Civil War, from Port Royal to Petersburg and beyond. The songs are modern, but inspired by the stories of those in gray and butternut who fought and died over 150 years ago. Clark was nice enough to send me his CD and recently agreed to do an interview.

Q. Tell us a little about yourself.

A. I'm a retired educator and now work with my wife, who is an artist, so I have plenty of time to write and play music. I've done both since I was young, but for thirty years, teaching paid the mortgage. I record and perform regularly with The Bitter Liberals, a talented group of players from the Shenandoah Valley, where I live. I have two children, one of whom is making me a grandpa this month, so we are all pretty excited around home.

Q. How did you become interested in the Civil War?

A. The same way a lot of modern Americans did, I'm afraid -- through Ken Burns and Shelby Foote. I watched that classic PBS documentary and then spent a summer lost in Foote's million word account of the war. Since then...well... I've become just another middle-age American guy who visits a lot of battlefields.

Clark Hansbarger
Q. What inspired you to do Dream of a Good Death? How does this CD depart from other recordings you have done?

A. My wife and I were kayaking down the Combahee River near Beaufort, South Carolina, when I discovered the history of the rice plantations. I had no idea that rice had been the primary money crop in the Low Country since colonial times. Anyway, I dug into the history there and ended up writing a song called "Fall of the Rice Kingdom" about the Union naval conquest of Port Royal Sound.

My band liked the song, and we recorded it for our first CD. When my brother-in-law (who is a serious digger with a fine collection of Civil War artifacts) heard the song, he thought I should do an entire album, said I'd make a million bucks selling them at re-enactments. So I wrote another, and then another, and soon I had enough for a CD. I haven't made that million yet, though!

Once I finished the CD, I built an interactive website to accompany it. ( I spent as much time on this as the music and had great fun doing so. I wrote an essay for each song and then included dozens of links and pictures so that folks could explore the history behind the songs.

The musical style of this CD doesn't depart much from what I usually write, but the subject matter certainly does. None of my other songs are historical, though they tend to be narrative, based on a distinct voice telling a story. The music is modern Americana...which is really just another way of saying folk rock.

Q. Your idea for a song cycle following Confederate soldiers through the war is intriguing. In listening to the CD, it is clear that your songs teach as well as entertain. Please describe for us your creative process in composing the songs on Dream of a Good Death. What historical background research did you do? 

A. Once I decided to create the album, I tried first to include different perspectives -- Union soldiers, slaves, women. But the songs with the Confederate voices came most easily, almost wrote themselves, so I stuck with these for continuity. This has nothing to do with any sympathy for their cause -- I'm glad the Union won that war, ended slavery, and moved us forward as a nation -- but somehow the Rebel stories had this ironic quality that seemed better suited for the music I was composing.

I researched the history carefully to be sure the facts were correct for each song. However, the key to writing historical fiction is to keep the focus on the character, lightly sprinkling in the historical details to build an illusion of reality. For the fiction to work, audiences must hear the human voice above all else. I didn't want these songs to be history lessons, but stories about "real" people from the past. And I wanted the songs both to stand alone and work as one long, sad tale.

I took some poetic license here and there, changed the time of day or a bit of the geography, and I always hear about this after a performance, usually from a polite, earnest Civil War buff waiting patiently to correct the slight inaccuracy. This actually brings me some satisfaction, because it means folks are listening carefully. And I always learn something and make new friends.

Q. Would it be fair to describe you as a historian through song?

A. Oh man. That might be dangerous. Anyone who has been to a few Civil War Roundtables or read a few blogs knows that the study of Civil War history is a contact sport. If you claim to be an expert, you darn well better be, and then better be prepared to defend your points to the death. I think I'd rather be described as a musician and fiction writer with a deep love of history.

Q. If you had to pick one, what is your favorite song on the CD?   

A. My daughter Kara sang on "The Tailor from Kingsport," so this song is obviously dear to my heart. The song explores PTSD -- called soldier's heart then --  and she sings the wife's story about her husbands return from the war. Kara 's a talented gal, and she sings the song with a lovely mix of frailty and strength.

You can see a video of this from a recent performance in Winchester, Virginia, at

My favorite song to perform live is probably the title song, "Dream of a Good Death," because it features each of the band members doing some spectacular instrumental work. Listen closely to that one and you hear some stellar guitar, violin and harmony vocals. None of that's me, but these remarkable guys I play with.

Q. Who are your collaborators on Dream of a Good Death?

A. I wrote the songs alone, but arranged them with the fine musicians featured on each song, mainly my band mates in The Bitter Liberals -- Gary McGraw, Allen Kitselman, and Mike Jewell.  I brought the songs to them as skeletons, just chords and words. They filled them out with lovely instrumentation, put the meat on the bones.

We practiced the songs a few times and then recorded them in a single, long day, so what you hear on the CD is pretty much a live recording with very little over-dub. This enables us to play the songs in concert just like they appeared on the CD -- even better, actually, because of the stage energy. My co-producer was Will Shenk, engineer extraordinaire from National Media Service in Front Royal, Virginia. He really brought the sound together, creating this open, rich feel.

I also included a few other great musicians I knew from years of playing in Northern Virginia-- Rob Remington, John Friant and Joe Faber. You can read about them all in the "About" section of my website at

Q. What is your biggest source of musical inspiration?

A. I listen to all sorts of folks, but the songwriters who tell stories move me most. Richard Thompson, John Hiatt, The Band. I like simple structure and clarity, so I admire Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, also.

In terms of inspiration, my wife Ginger leads the pack. Once I started work on this, she was like an overseer, grilling me each day to see if I'd worked on my songs. I was afraid we wouldn't have supper that night if I didn't have something to play for her first! She's an artist, so she understands that creativity is work, a good bit of sweat and time.

Q. How would you describe your musical style?

A. Folk-based, acoustic story telling, though the CD includes some moments of country, and a bit of bluegrass and rock.

Q. Where have you performed songs from Dream of a Good Death? Do you have upcoming concerts?

A. We perform Dream of a Good Death as an entire evening-- sort of a TED Talk meets Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young concert. Basically, I introduce each song with a short lecture, projecting slides of war photos and maps on a big screen behind us. Then we play the song. Because the songs are in chronological order, we end up walking the audience through the war from the beginning to the end, presenting both sides of the story.

We've done the show in large venues, like The American Theater in Hampton, Virginia, and Loudoun's Franklin Park Arts Center, but also in smaller ones like Long Branch Plantation and the beautiful stone church in Harpers Ferry. We will be performing it this spring in a lovely old African Methodist church in Union, West Virginia. The local historical society is hosting the show, and they restored the church as a cultural center -- great acoustics and about 100 seats. We're excited with the venue and may do a live recording that night.

Q. Any new recordings on the horizon?

 A. The Bitter Liberals ( will be back in the studio soon. We are working on new songs now. It's best to play the new stuff live for a while to tighten up the arrangements before recording. This will be our third CD, not counting Dream of a Good Death.

None of the songs are about the Civil War, though one is the story of a veteran home from the war in Afghanistan. We include this song in concerts regularly now, and it's coming together well.
Here is a link to a video of the song from our recent concert at The Tally Ho theater in Leesburg:

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