Independent country and roots music is having a moment right now, and the makers of the new Hunger Games movie are taking notice. Under the guidance of producer Dave Cobb, they’ve taken some of the most preeminent up-and-comers in the movement, and placed them on the soundtrack of the latest installment and revitalization of the film franchise, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.
As the name implies, the new movie has a major musical component, pairing it perfectly with a soundtrack that could have implications well beyond the film, and expose an audience to music and performers they may otherwise not interface with.
Music for the film was directly inspired by the earliest forms of American country music. Suzanne Collins is the author of the Hunger Games book series, and instructed the film’s director Francis Lawrence to watch the 16-hour, 8-part Country Music documentary by Ken Burns released in 2019 to give him an idea of what she was going for.
Charles Wesley Godwin, Sierra Ferrell, Flatland Cavalry, Billy Strings, Molly Tuttle, Bella White, and The Covey Band comprise many of the major entries on the soundtrack, including all new recordings we’ve never heard from these performers previously, as well as a multiple original songs novel to this release. Also appearing on the soundtrack is pop star Olivia Rodrigo, as well as actor Rachel Zegler, who plays the leading role in the film as folk singer turned Hunger Games participant Lucy Gray Baird.
Obviously as a soundtrack, this is an album you’re less inclined to listen to cover to cover, and many of the 17 tracks need the context of the film itself to appreciate fully, especially the Rachel Zegler entries that make up eight of the album’s songs. But even more so that some other soundtracks, this feels like one you may pick and choose your way through. With many recognizable artists on it though, that hunt may be fulfilling.
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Flatland Cavalry – “The Wool” – A dark and gloomy song, especially compared to the songs on their new album Wandering Star, frontman Cleto Cordero wrote the song inspired by the film itself.
Sierra Ferrell – “The Garden” – A track that Ferrell has been performing for some time now, it pairs well with her recent new single “The Fox Hunt” that also comes with a very agrarian aspect to it. Unlike some of the soundtrack’s other entries, this one was produced by Eddie Spear and Gary Paczosa. It was probably recorded for an upcoming Sierra Ferrell project, or perhaps will remain exclusive to this soundtrack.
Molly Tuttle – “Bury Me Beneath The Willow” – For her entry, Molly Tuttle chooses to revitalize a traditional song from the folk canon and opposed to contribute an original one, though it still is a great showcase for Tuttle’s talents, including her flatpicking skills with the guitar.
Bella White – “Burn Me Once” – A song that Bella White says she wrote a long time ago, it features just Bella, her guitar, and her unique singing pentameter and delivery that has made her a favorite of many.
Billy Strings – “Cabin Song” – A song that Billy String has been performing in concert for a while now, it really showcases how despite all the psychedelia and jam band aspects to his take on bluegrass, Billy’s roots remain grounded in the elemental version of the bluegrass genre.
Charles Wesley Godwin – “Winter’s Come and Gone” – Another acoustic-only song on the soundtrack, this is the surging West Virginia songwriter’s take on a David Rawlings and Gillian Welch tune originally released in 1998.
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The songs featuring Rachel Zegler should not be overlooked entirely either. Some of the early tracks feel a little oversung and operatic in scope, which perhaps is expected from a performer that is an actor first and a singer second. But “Lucy Gray (part 1)” and “Lucy Gray (part 2)” are very compelling a capella performances, perhaps not on the same level as Dr. Ralph Stanley’s “O Death” that became so popularized through the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack, but still very worthy of ears.
Zegler’s role in a reconstituted version of Disney’s Snow White has some up in arms on the political right, while her participation in promoting this Hunger Games movie despite the labor unrest in Hollywood has her in the doghouse with the left. But none of this has to do with her performance in this film specifically, or on this soundtrack.
Nonetheless, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes feels a little too understated and dry to become a blockbuster on its own. In some respects, this is to be expected since the music is supposed to be infused with folk traditions, and cast in a dystopian setting. Still, the power of this soundtrack to expose its participants to a wider audience makes it one to watch, especially if many watch the movie, and seek out the music from it.