All aboard Railroad Earth
Ten years ago, when Railroad Earth first started pulling into stages away from its base in northwestern New Jersey, one of its first stops was on top of Aspen Mountain. I consider myself fortunate to have caught the band back then; a decade along, the six-piece group has brought its blend of bluegrass, acoustic rock and folk to Red Rocks, Bonnaroo and a few months ago, a three-night sold-out run at Denver’s Ogden Theatre. In June, Railroad Earth has a plum slot at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, closing the Friday night festivities, following Emmylou Harris and Bla Fleck & the Flecktones.What stands out in my mind from that Aspen Mountain gig was the lack of a standout personality. There was, strictly speaking, a frontman – Todd Sheaffer, the guitarist and principal singer, who was responsible for writing the bulk of the material. But Sheaffer was a mild-mannered presence on stage, and hardly the instrumental focus. Instead, the various members of Railroad Earth exercised remarkable teamwork, as fiddler Tim Carbone would play a short solo, hand off the lead to John Skehan, whose own brief mandolin excursion would then be picked up by Andy Goessling, whose bag of tools included banjo, dobro and saxophone. (To use a contemporary analogy that crosses my basketball-obsessed mind, it was akin to the post-Carmelo Denver Nuggets – lots of passing and movement, and an emphasis on the team rather than the individual, with an end result far more than the sum of its parts.) Sheaffer would then step back to the microphone for a final verse, capping a song about freedom or the start of a new ride ahead – or maybe just singing some tuneful “oohs” and “whoa-whoa-whoas,” a Sheaffer specialty.About to complete its first decade – the band has a 10th anniversary gig set for May 7 in New Jersey – Railroad Earth has maintained that essence I got from that early gig. Sheaffer has stepped up his game considerably as a guitarist, but Railroad Earth remains an anomaly in the jam-band world which it more or less occupies. There is no wiz-bang soloist dominating the jams; in fact, the extended instrumental solo is the least of their attributes.”There are long solos. But it’s all played in service to the song,” Carbone, who plays fiddle, accordion and guitar, said, from his home in Shawnee on Delaware, a Pennsylvania town just across the Delaware River from New Jersey. “A lot of it relies on musical conversation, where one person says something and another answers. There’s a lot of listening, not just playing.”Similar to another New Jersey icon – Bruce Springsteen – Railroad Earth has a populist stance that is borrowed from another musician who lived his final days in the Garden State – Woody Guthrie. That ideal of teamwork has jumped the rails, extending not only to what happens onstage, but also to the songs Railroad Earth writes, and the way their fans relate to the band. The attitude of “We’re all riding in this same boxcar” is expressed in many of Sheaffer’s songs. “Jupiter and the 119,” a powerful country-rocker from the 2010 album “Railroad Earth,” tells of the first cross-continent train track and pitches the story as a parable of community achievement and pride: “From the East and West they’re here/ And all across the country they’ve raised a mighty cheer.” (Press materials that accompanied the album tied the song’s celebratory, unifying tone to the election of Barack Obama as president.)A personal favorite is “Storms,” from the 2004 album, “The Good Life.” The song wraps together several of Sheaffer’s signature themes: the natural world and overcoming adversity. The overall tone stresses the collective over the individual: “We got a hole to mend/ We got a fire to tend/ We won’t let these troubles grind us.” The song is about a one-on-one relationship, but in a nice touch, the lyric expands to include community, history and the spiritual realm, all working on behalf of the couple: “We got friends and prayers to mind us/ We’ve got seven years behind us.””With Todd, you get that feeling from all his songs – we’re all in it together. That quantifies it in a nutshell,” Carbone said. “People do get that. You can look out and see in the audience, it’s written on people’s faces. The experience is shared; it’s people sharing the same place. That’s rare, but it’s also real.”Over its 10 years, Railroad Earth has seen steady growth in its audience; it has added up to a significant presence for the band. Five years ago, the band played to a Wheeler Opera House that wasn’t half full; two summers ago, their Belly Up debut sold out, leaving many fans – known as Hobos – begging for tickets. And Carbone says that the crowds have become noticeably younger over the decade, which is the opposite of the usual trend in music. It is a small, but perhaps hopeful sign that younger people are attracted to Railroad Earth’s ethos of concern for the community. “I think people come to a show because they want to share that feeling,” Carbone said. “It’s not just a musical experience; there’s a spiritual quality to it. That’s due to Todd’s songs, but also the way we play and improvise. When I play violin, my goal is to disconnect and allow something else to take over. I don’t claim complete responsibility. My job is to connect with that something else.”By the winter of 2001, Carbone was already connected to several of the musicians who would become Railroad Earth. He had played with Goessling and drummer Carey Harmon for over 30 years, had been in half a dozen projects with Skehan, and spent a bit of time in From Good Homes, a roots-rock band led by Sheaffer through the ’90s. Carbone and Skehan were regulars at the twice-a-month picking parties at Goessling’s New Jersey house. At a January 2001 gathering, Sheaffer joined the crowd, bringing with him a handful of songs about simplicity, possibilities, and the rural surroundings.(Northwestern New Jersey is a place of hills, rivers and villages, the kind of place you could envision a bluegrass-type band taking root.)The songs, the musicians, the timing and the setting all seemed to fit. The group pulled in bassist Dave von Dollen and started to work up the material.After just a few weeks of rehearsing, the group deemed itself ready to take a name – lifting theirs from the Jack Kerouac story “October in the Railroad Earth” – and to record a demo. Things picked up steam quickly. At their first performance in front of an audience, at an Elk’s Club in East Stroudsberg, Penn., they received a piece of encouraging prophecy. Warming up in a room upstairs from the venue, an unknown woman poked her head in, listened a moment, and asked, “What are you guys doing, getting ready to play Telluride or something?”They didn’t know it then, but the answer was yes. That five-song demo, “The Black Bear Sessions,” got to a friend who was convinced that the acoustic and jam worlds needed to know about this new group. One of the first places the tape landed was at the Boulder headquarters of Planet Bluegrass.Railroad Earth, which had yet to finish a proper album or play outside its home base, earned a gig on the mainstage at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. They put together a tour that included that first Aspen gig.Later that year the band released the full version of “The Black Bear Sessions.” It gave no indication that it had begun life as a demo recording, made by a band with all of a three-month history. Virtually all of the songs remain in the band’s repertoire, with “Seven Story Mountain,” “Colorado” and “Railroad Earth” earning fan-favorite status.Railroad Earth followed with two albums that built on the promise of “Black Bear Sessions”: 2002’s “Bird in a House” and 2004’s “The Good Life.” The albums not only built a catalogue of tunes, but solidified Sheaffer as the writer of a certain kind of song. They are songs that live close to the ground, addressing issues of the land, hard work, family, faith and transcendence. Had their timing been better, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau probably would have been Hobos.It’s possible that winning over one fan had as much to do with the band’s success as their string of albums. In 2005, Phil Lesh, the former bassist of the Grateful Dead, sat in with Railroad Earth at a San Francisco gig, giving the band a huge boost into the spotlight.The one-night collaboration might have signaled a turn of the bend, but it didn’t mean instant success. Sheaffer’s songs continued to speak about struggling – for security, for relief from an overly plugged-in world, for peace of mind.”It’s always a little bit of a struggle, being a band on the road. You’re away from your family, away from good food,” Carbone said. “But everyone has their own little struggles, trying to muddle through what they have. In most good literature, and good songwriting, there is a protagonist and an antagonist. It’s tension and release. Todd’s songs – most of them have elements of that.”In October, Railroad Earth released a self-titled album that represented a new approach to recording. Where “Amen Corner,” from 2008, was recorded in Sheaffer’s barn, with all the musicians playing together and few overdubs, for “Railroad Earth” they brought in an outside producer and experimented with guitar effects, layered vocals and other tricks of the modern recording studio.Sheaffer is such a strong songwriter, though, and Railroad Earth has so established its identity as a rootsy string band, that the album doesn’t come off as a vast departure from past recordings. The songs carry the album, beginning with the opening track, “Long Walk Home,” in which Sheaffer sings again of togetherness: “Follow me in with all you’ve got/ Follow me into the valley.”But when I ask Carbone to pick a tune that demonstrates Railroad Earth’s approach to music and overall personality, he makes what at first seems a strange choice: “Spring-Heeled Jack,” which doesn’t feature any of Sheaffer’s lyrics about unity or cooperative effort. It is, instead, a loose, 11-minute instrumental that eventually announces an identifiably Celtic theme.”There’s no single solo, even though the whole thing is instrumental,” Carbone said. “It’s like a group solo, and each member has a handle on a different color thread and we’re weaving this tapestry together.”It just seems natural to frame these songs in a way that doesn’t say, ‘Look at me, look at me.’ They say, ‘Look at us. Look at all of us.'”
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