To record the fourth song for their eighth studio album Foo Fighters headed to Nashville, Tennessee. A few years earlier Dave Grohl had first met country music artist Zac Brown whilst out shopping in Los Angeles and Brown, being a big fan of Grohl, introduced himself. The pair chatted with Grohl telling him about the plans for recording his next album. Brown, in turn, revealed that he himself was a studio owner, running Southern Ground in Nashville.
The pair exchanged numbers and a short time later Brown called to ask Dave if he would be willing to produce his next record, with his band The Zac Brown Band. Despite still being only vaguely familiar with Brown himself and knowing nothing about his music Dave agreed, flying to Nashville in November 2013 and joining the band at their studio. A couple of years earlier Brown had bought the former Monument Recording Studio in the city, a converted Presbyterian Church which he had then further renovated into a state-of-the-art facility, re-naming it Southern Ground Nashville. Impressed by both the band and the studio during his time there Grohl took Brown up on the offer to return the following year on his ‘Sonic Highways’ journey.
The band were booked into Southern Ground in the first week of March 2014 and began their now familiar process loading in their gear, setting up the mics and getting to work. Despite spending several weeks in 2013 writing and rehearsing material the instrumental track which had been selected to record in Nashville, later titled ‘Congregation’, was not in a ‘ready to record’ format like many of the other tracks.
“When we first walked in on Monday and started rehearsing the song was not there 100% and I think all of were stressing a little bit,” recalled producer Butch Vig. “Our first day here we were trying to figure out the arrangement, and we were kinda having trouble with it” added Grohl. Facing the troubles head-on Grohl soon found inspiration from the studio itself. Inside the former church was an arch which light shone straight through on a sunny day, showering the studio in beams of light. “I looked up at it and the light coming through there, and I totally had this moment where I’m like ‘Oh my God, now I get it!’. I don’t know if it was because the place used to be a church, but when that light hit me through that window, I felt inspired”.
Following his epiphany-like moment Grohl headed into the control room where the rest of the band were discussing ideas and quickly pulled them out into the large live room, wanting to work on the new arrangement before the ideas left his head. “In 24 hours, we kind of overhauled the arrangement, and let the song breathe a little more,” said Vig of the fast evolution.
Minor crisis averted the next day recording got underway with Hawkins laying down his drum track followed by bass from Nate Mendel. Guitar tracks were next to be recorded but Grohl was becoming concerned again, worried that the musical influences of the City were having an effect on the song. “It’s kind of turning it into a bit of a country song,” agreed bassist Nate Mendel. “I walk in the control room and everyone has cowboy hats on and they’re playing a guitar lead that sounds like it’s from The Good The Bad And The Ugly, I get a little nervous” recalled Grohl.
Guitarists Chris Shiflett and Pat Smear re-worked their guitar parts, Shiflett returning to a lead part he’d played earlier in the week rather than one that was now sounding straight out of a Garth Brooks record. As Grohl had been invited to Southern Ground by Zac Brown he chose to repay the favor by leaving space in the song for a guitar part by to be played by Brown. Whilst Grohl had a “machine gun-type guitar part” in mind what the Atlanta native ended up performing was “a little more melodic” according to Brown.
With all instrumentation recorded it was time once again for Grohl to get to work on the lyrics for the song, bringing together many hours of interview footage and his experiences in Nashville both during recording, and over the past year working with Brown. The final line of the song, ‘.and they’re singing like a bluebird in the round’, referenced Nashville’s iconic Bluebird Cafe. “In Nashville, it seems like there are these rites of passage that you have to go through to become a star, whether you're a singer or a songwriter, and the Bluebird is really one of those. If you can get down at the Bluebird, you've got a gig,” said Grohl having learned about the venue.
‘Congregation’ would be included as track three on the ‘Sonic Highways’ album, first released as a standalone track on October 31st, 2004.