Roots ‘Songbirds’ Are Enlisted For The New Hunger Games Movie
It may not match the impact of O Brother, Where Art Thou? from 20 years ago, but a lot of folks will likely have their first exposure to old-time roots music through the new film The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, which opened Nov. 17 to big box office numbers. The soundtrack, released the same day, features some of Americana’s biggest names singing songs that suit the Appalachian setting of much of the film, including lyrics written by Suzanne Collins in the original novel, a prequel to the massively popular Hunger Games series of books and movies.
As told by Vanity Fair, the film’s producer Nina Jacobson and director Francis Lawrence tapped Dave Cobb, the star Americana producer of Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton and others, to develop the sound of the song-based elements of the soundtrack. So we hear a mix of standards and original songs performed by Sierra Ferrell, Molly Tuttle, Bella White, Charles Wesley Godwin and Flatland Cavalry.
While those songs might come as revelations to Hunger Games fans who aren’t into roots music, roots music lovers might find a favorite new singer in Rachel Zegler, who plays the lead role of Lucy Gray Baird. Her songs, many with music by Dave Cobb and lyrics by Collins, tap a pre bluegrass mountain sound, and some were tracked live during filming. After the soundtrack album gets started with its not-very-country Olivia Rodrigo closing credits track “Can’t Catch Me Now”, Zegler brings a stark version of “The Hanging Tree,” a song important to the original Hunger Games series.
In the new material, Zegler’s “The Ballad of Lucy Gray Baird” is a waltz set to a melody like “Streets of Laredo.” A soundtrack original “Pure As The Driven Snow” is a fine plaintive and bittersweet song. But the show-stopper - the album’s “Man of Constant Sorrow” if you will - is “Nothing You Can Take From Me,” a high-stepping minor-key song of self-possession that shows the savvy range and sweet tone of Zegler’s voice. We knew she could really sing because Zegler played Maria in the recent screen revival of West Side Story, but any fears she’d bring Broadway mannerisms to this acoustic country material can be set aside.
I haven’t seen the film, so I don’t know how these songs do or don’t make it to the screen (the title does note it’s music “from or inspired by” the movie), but a few by the special guests stand on their own as great additions for 2023 roots music. Billy Strings whips his bluegrass band through the uptempo “Cabin Home,” a classic heartbroke-for-yesterday kind of song that he wrote. Sierra Ferrell offers “The Garden,” an original she’s been performing live and that’s slated for an album of hers next year.
A couple of beloved songs from the past pop up too. Charles Wesley Godwin rumbles his way through Gillian Welch and David Rawlings’ great song “Winter’s Come And Gone.” I miss the harmonies that sweeten up that song, but Godwin’s version is serviceable. More essential is Molly Tuttle’s take on the Carter Family staple “Bury Me Beneath The Willow,” performed solo with guitar and Dominic Leslie on mandolin. The bluegrass star knows the canon but we don’t get to hear her sing the old songs often enough.
There are some tracks here that sample the final film, with dialogue and sound that can distract from a smooth listen to the album front to back, but its best tracks make for a satisfying experience that hints at a deep, dark story. Said Cobb in his Vanity Fair interview, “I wanted to have this real authenticity to match the recordings we were influenced by—and you can feel that super Southern dystopia.”