For Love & Country devotes time and attention to the inspiring, incredible musicians that built the backbone of the country genre today. The documentary proclaims country music has always been black music. It observes country music’s complicated past and how the music industry itself helped to enshrine a skewed version of the genre, its artists and fans.
I worked with director Joshua Kissi, story writer Cody Whitman, editor Dan Roman, and the team at Pizza Night to score the film through Butter Music and Sound. For a music-based documentary, we wanted the score to expand on the country music at its core and make the project feel cinematic. I wanted to explore a sonic landscape that hadn’t been explored before. Carter Burwell does his beautiful thing over the Coen Brothers’ westerns, and Hans Zimmer explored using pedal steel in his score for Interstellar, but we were telling a different story about different people. I wanted to make sure that black people and black music were represented. It was important to me to pull from all of our roots: country, gospel, soul music and roots music, and a lot of the music feels choral and spiritual to me as well. All of those elements add a sense of scope and gravitas to go along with the story being told. We took this approach to make the documentary feel like it had a place on the big screen as well as on a TV, phone or tablet. Sure, the film is an Amazon Original, but the goal was a massive impact. The music helped the film feel like it could premiere at your local cineplex.
I started as I do most of my compositions: from the beginning, writing the overarching themes and motifs I wanted to include before digging into the film section by section. The process felt so seamless that I ended up composing the score almost linearly, which is less common. The rest of the team came with notes on what tone and emotions they wanted to convey, and where, which stemmed from the incredible visuals. It made following their lead very easy.
Interestingly, the biggest choices were less technical and more emotion-based. I underlined the moments in which I wanted to bring out the emotion. I synced the music with important quotes the musicians on-screen were saying, which would be brighter or darker, depending on what Joshua wanted to convey. Everyone was incredibly supportive of one another’s choices, eager to learn, and devoted so much love to the project. It felt very utopic in that sense.
For this film — more than most of my projects — the use of specific instruments dictated which cues I worked on and what music happened at what times. The country genre poses unique instruments you don’t hear in others, like the banjo, mandolin, pedal steel, etc. I first decided in which scenes I wanted to use those instruments, and later elaborated on those ideas with piano, strings and synths. Actually, I took the opportunity before even speaking with the director and producers to buy new toys for my studio in preparation for the task ahead. I got myself a new lap steel guitar and banjo, borrowed a friend’s mandolin and baritone guitar, and even treated myself to a new telecaster. I toyed with any instrument that fit the genre. For three months, my studio was transformed into a cockpit of instruments I don’t often play, but always have a lot of fun using.
My workhorse is Logic Pro and I used a lot of my favorite Spitfire Audio sample libraries for the orchestral elements. I also love Spitfire’s synth libraries too, so those came in handy. All the country instruments I recorded live in my studio, so the process was filled with a lot of acoustic guitar recording, bass tracking, lap steel and high-strung guitars. I’m so glad I was able to create such a creative environment to play in.
With such an incredible opportunity as to score an Amazon Original film, I took away plenty of long-standing lessons in the craft. For one, it taught me to go with my gut. As it turned out, some of my gut instincts, which I thought were most risky, ended up being some of the team’s favorite music. Don’t be afraid to try new things.
Second, don’t think for a moment you can or should stop learning. Coming out of the project, I have a newfound love of country music. I had been honing an appreciation for the genre for a few years, but especially now I feel very connected to it. Soak up as much as you can on any project, creatively or technically. That includes the amazing artists featured in the documentary: Jimmie Allen, Blanco Brown, Breland, Shy Carter, Mickey Guyton, Valerie June, Amythyst Kiah, Willie Jones, Reyna Roberts, Allison Russell, Brittney Spencer, Frankie Staton and Mike Floss. So many names worth getting to know.
In approaching projects like this, or any other, it’s really important for composers to listen — listen to the director’s, the producers’ and writers’ visions. The editor is also very important. If the composer can listen to what those people want and demonstrate that they understand, the people you’re working with will feel way more comfortable letting composers do their thing. It’s difficult to balance creative visions — theirs and yours — but committing to understanding theirs will open them up to hearing your ideas and approach, which makes for excellent collaboration. My favorite partnerships are ones where each side is open to the other’s ideas with mutual trust. By the time I concluded For Love & Country, each aspect of production, post and music were equally aligned in the shared goal of giving an unsung aspect of a major genre its much-needed voice.
Nat Jenkins (
, left) is a self-taught musician who has played instruments and written and recorded since his childhood. Beyond hin home base in New York City, he was encouraged to go wherever creativity led him. He earned a dual degree in composition and computer science from Lehigh University, and began interning and working at various post studios. Roles with Headroom, Plushnyc and Sonic Union instilled a collaborative and efficient work ethic prior to signing with Butter Music and Sound.