Riding The Rails with Railroad Earth

By: Bill Clifford

Come around the Amen Corner
And there she's standing in the door
Staring in the eyes of my poor soul

Railroad Earth by C. Taylor Crothers
Titles can certainly be misleading. And while Todd Sheaffer, songwriter, lead vocalist and acoustic guitarist of Railroad Earth, may have first heard the phrase "Amen Corner" in reference to holes 11 through 13 at the Augusta National Golf Club, the title also has deeper personal relevance as the name of his band's new album (released June 10 on SCI Fidelity).

"Well it's a phrase that I've had that started with a lyric from a song, 'Been Down This Road Before,'" begins Sheaffer. "We've discovered since that it has a long history as a phrase, amongst those being 'shout in the Amen Corner,' a section of a church where Amen is shouted. But, the relevance to us really, along with the lyric, is that it's a phrase that ended up in the song and seemed like a good phrase to put on the cover."

Mandolin player John Skehan is equally vague. "I think yea, it definitely had a feel to it, and had a little mental question mark that went along with it because it can mean so many things on its own. And as we looked around, yeah, it did pop up with a couple of different interesting significances."

Upon arriving at the East Hartford Community Cultural Center in Connecticut, children clamored in the playground across the street. Walking up the stone steps leading into the former area high school, it's obvious that this is not your average live music venue. The "Green Room" is actually painted with a light lime green, as is the theater, which has the look of a room that once doubled as a gymnasium. The chalkboards are littered with drawings of smiling faces, while the rectangular tables we sit at hint that the room may have once been a science lab or maybe an art room.

Railroad Earth :: 06.05.08 by Ian Rawn
One week earlier, the band performed at Pearl Street Nightclub in Northampton, Massachusetts, drawing approximately 300 fans to a more traditional concert venue in a college town. Tonight, however, they draw well over 400, including many longtime fans – creatively dubbed the Hobos – that frequently travel with the band regionally. It was an ebullient scene, as children danced and bounced around next to twirling fans.

Then again, this is Railroad Earth we're talking about. In previous interviews, the band has shunned categorization and stereotyping like the plague. It's a point that has been well covered, but folks still seem surprised by an acoustic rock band that plays traditional bluegrass instruments (mandolin, banjo, violin, acoustic guitar) but also utilizes a full drummer and adds various instrumental colors such as saxophones and hand percussion.

Railroad Earth came together in 2001. Violinist Tim Carbone and multi-instrumentalist Andy Goessling had played in Blue Sparks From Hell until 1990. Soon after, Carbone joined Sheaffer in his New Jersey-based acoustic rock act, From Good Homes, which recorded three albums for RCA and performed countless tours with artists like Blues Traveler and Joan Osborne as opening acts, while they themselves opened for mainstays such as the Dave Matthews Band and Bob Weir & RatDog. After FGH split in 1999 and Sheaffer began writing for what he thought would be a solo record, he bumped into Skehan at New York's longstanding Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival. Skehan, then part of a loose collective calling themselves The Lost Ramblers, invited Sheaffer to a picking session at Goessling's house, of which Carbone was already a part of, who in turn invited Carey Harmon to join the band on drums. Their original upright bassist, Dave Van Dollen, was later replaced by Johnny Grubb.

Todd Sheaffer - RRE :: 06.05.08 by Ian Rawn
The group took its moniker from a Jack Kerouac poem called "October In The Railroad Earth." Carbone recalls, "It sort of intuitively, I don't want to say marked the progress of the band, but it really seemed as if once we named the band it really seemed as if the music fit the name, as opposed to the name fitting the band." A demo of five original songs was recorded, and the band's manager, (then and still) Brian Ross, got it in the hands of Craig Ferguson, the promoter of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, who offered the young band a slot.

"Once we realized what was happening, when we were on our way Telluride, we came up with a quick list of things to do" says Skehan. "One was to finish the demo and turn it into a CD, the other was buy an old red van, and third was to rehearse every possible spare minute we could find. We kind of went into it crunch mode, hunkered down, had about a month or more of 'Okay, we can all get together from nine until midnight on a Wednesday night.' We took every minute we could."

They did eventually complete the demo, which became The Black Bear Sessions and included two ("Walk On By" and "Head") FGH songs. Two more studio albums, Bird In A Cage (2002) and The Good Life (2004), followed, and in 2006 the band issued the retrospective double live set, Elko.

According to Sheaffer, the band and its music have evolved and matured quite a bit since 2001.

"I think material wise, the song dedication, you know, staples have evolved a lot," he says. "In some spots, what was a moment has become a hook in some of those jams and ideas have come about and solidified into stronger ideas. Certain things have evolved. What was vague has become more a form; some other things that were a set form have become looser in form. I think the music has evolved and changed a lot by being played a lot."

Continue reading for more on Railroad Earth...

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