Count This Penny is a keen choice to awaken the voices of long-dead Union soldiers. The quartet's founders, Amanda and Allen Rigell, are East Tennessee transplants, Appalachian artists who bring rich, balanced sensibilities - the kind of consideration the Civil War demands - to a unique musical assignment.
The Civil War Arts project was the brainchild of Jeff Kollath, history curator at Wisconsin Veterans Museum. It's an ongoing campaign to illuminate soldier stories with light cast from the imaginations of Wisconsin poets, artists and musicians.
Those imaginations are inspired by real life. In the case of the two-song, hand-numbered 45 RPM record created by the Rigells, it comes from letters home written by Union soldiers from the Badger State. Count This Penny celebrates the release with a March 9 show at the museum.
Amanda's "Do Not Borrow Trouble" awakens the spirit of Cpl. Walter Persons, who served in the Battle of Shiloh with the 16th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment. In the song, Persons addresses his father and mother and brings them into "the black heart of Shiloh." Rigell has a plaintive, goosebump-inducing voice no matter the tune. Her woeful chorus here, consisting of simple, desperate oh's, is made fatalistic by the pensive, glassy notes of her bandmate John Ray's banjo.
The Rigells were presented with abstracts culled from a half-dozen boxes of letters and Bibles that belonged to Union troops. From there they chose the individual soldiers on whom they focused.
Amanda says she "trembled" in anticipation of holding and examining the actual letters of Cpl. Persons. When the lid of the box was lifted, a thin layer of cellophane is all that divided the 150 years between soldier and songsmith.
She conveys a soldier's torment, but also hope. She reconstitutes Persons' spirit, his will to live, his sly stab at making the best of a horrific situation. "I'm way down South in the land of cotton," Persons wrote, and Amanda sings. "That's more than some can say."
Amanda's work was aided by transcriptions of Persons' correspondence. His handwriting, while providing immediacy, also required some untangling. Her husband, Allen, had to rely completely on the handwritten words of his subject.
Allen introduces us to 7th Wisconsin Infantryman John Hunt, who was taken prisoner at Gettysburg. He died at a prisoner-of-war camp. While "Do Not Borrow Trouble" is taken almost directly from the soldier's words, Allen's "I'll Take a Walk" weaves themes of fate with Hunt's description of his own blunted destiny.
"I'll Take a Walk" is also a blending of voices and instruments that allows the band that is Count This Penny to shine. Fiddle player John Henry's sound conveys old, hard times near the battle lines. The Rigells sing together, and their harmonies give the song a faraway, familial sadness. (See video of Count This Penny recording the tracks at countthispenny.com.)
Hearing the songs will make you want to read the letters of Hunt and Persons. Those and many more are available for study at the Veterans Museum.
The cuts will also make you want to hear more of Count This Penny. They came to Madison from Johnson City, Tenn., in June 2010, and they have taken the city by storm. The Civil War songwriting coincided with the couple's work on songs for a new CD. The Rigells write their songs separately, not together, then teach each other the tune and feel the arrangement as they go. The results are attracting bigger and bigger audiences to their shows.
The email from Garrison Keillor's producer inviting them to perform on A Prairie Home Companion came a little over a week ago, "from out of the blue," Amanda says. "We thought it was a prank. Or spam."
They didn't answer initially. "Then we Googled the guy's name." A phone call later, Count This Penny was confirmed to appear on Keillor's live broadcast when the program airs from the Milwaukee Theater on March 31.
Even after the phone call, the Rigells kept the booking to themselves, still in shock. "When we saw it listed on the Prairie Home Companion website we felt it was for real," says Amanda. Their Facebook announcement last week set off an explosion of cheers and congrats from the many Madison musicians who have seen their talent from the beginning.
That talent includes, according to those same players, the gift of generosity, support and friendship the Rigells have spread over the city's musical community in the relatively short time they've called Madison home.