What a year this has been for Railroad Earth! Just five short months ago, the six band members got together for the first time at a friend’s 250 year old barn way out in rural Stillwater, NJ. That first session began with an impromtu jam through a bunch of bluegrass traditionals. Then Todd Sheaffer (formerly of From Good Homes) pulled out some of the new songs he’d been writing. The other guys were floored by what they heard and dove head first into arranging and figuring ways to make the songs as exciting as possible for the stage.
After just three weeks and a handful of rehearsals, the new band felt confident enough to book time at a local recording studio to make some demos. Those five tracks became known as The Black Bear Sessions and we’re recorded live in the studio with no overdubs except backing vocals. But it was the energy they’d captured on tape and the subsequent reaction that is the real story.
A couple of the band members knew a manager who was a big bluegrass fan. They sent him the demo and after just one listen he called offering to manage them. Without even the benefit of a promo photo he immediately sent the demo off to some of the country’s biggest festivals. By the end of February, Railroad Earth was booked on the main stage of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, High Sierra Music Festival, All Good Festival and many other major events, before they’d even played their first gig!
By the beginning of March they had an agent on board and the gigs started pouring in. While the band was busy rehearsing to play their first show, their agent and manager were setting up a coast to coast tour at some of the country’s most prestigious small venues. And then the buzz began! Record companies started calling. Endorsement deals were struck with acoustic instrument and pick-up system companies. Promoters were calling with offers to play their festival or venue. All on the strength of this one demo and a rough promo photo shot in a church on a sub-zero afternoon within a half hour.
By the time Railroad Earth played their first few shows at the end of April, new fans around the country were setting up download sites to share their music. There was a bunch of activity on Napster and people began talking about them on other, more popular bands’ message boards. The band agreed to let one friend put their demo on his website and in the first two weeks there were over 2500 downloads. During their first three day run at the beginning of May, tapers were at each show and tapes began to show up on the internet.
Meanwhile the band was busy rehearsing and recording new songs to release as their first album. They decided to use the original Black Bear demos as the foundation and complete the album by adding another handful of songs. The new tracks were recorded in pretty much the same way, only this time they did indulge themselves with some overdubs. They named the whole album The Black Bear Sessions, which is due out in mid-June.
Because of all the buzz, I’ve neglected to mention the most important thing... the music. Here are my thoughts. Railroad Earth is a unique and spellbinding band who truly has that all too rare ability to get their point across through both their studio recordings and, especially, their live performances. Todd Sheaffer’s songs shine with brilliance from his poetic and poignant lyrics to his wonderfully singable melodies. Think of mid-seventies Dylan or American Beauty era Grateful Dead. But that’s only the beginning. While all of these guys can play their instruments extremely well, it’s the synergy of the collective that makes it really soar. Whereas most bluegrass oriented music builds it’s “jams” around a consistent rhythmic support system for the soloist, Railroad Earth weaves effortlessly through musical landscapes that require total communication amongst it’s members. This is a band that really listens to each other. And it shows in their performances. It only took one show for me to fall. And now I’m completely hooked!
Last night my friend referred to Railroad Earth as a bluegrass band. I hadn’t thought much before about coining a genre for them, but it occurred to me at that moment that they are about as much a bluegrass band as Led Zeppelin was a heavy metal one. Yes, they do have elements of bluegrass. Yes, they do perform with acoustic instruments. Yes, they have strong soaring harmonies like you hear in so many bluegrass bands. But are they a bluegrass band? Not at all. Railroad Earth is simply a great band with great songs, great jams and great vocals. Call ‘em what you will, but I’ll call them my favorite new band!!
By Michael Moraites
MP3’s at www.edgimo.com/railroadearth
Upcoming East Coast Dates...
6.13 | Stanhope House | Stanhope, NJ
6.14 | Tribeca Blues | NYC, NY
6.16 | Mexicali Blues | Teaneck, NJ
More Railroad Earth Tour Dates