By: Bill Clifford
Come around the Amen Corner
And there she's standing in the door
Staring in the eyes of my poor soul
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.
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.
|Railroad Earth :: 06.05.08 by Ian Rawn|
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.
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.
|Todd Sheaffer - RRE :: 06.05.08 by Ian Rawn|
"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."
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Photo by: C. Taylor Crothers
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.
In 2007, the band went back into the studio to record its first album of new originals in three years. Apparently, the record fell short of the band's expectations and was placed on the backburner. Later in 2007, Grubb, Sheaffer and Harmon all added new additions to their families. Instinctively and protectively, everyone clams up when questioned about how family has affected songwriting and recording. But, a soft-spoken Sheaffer shyly admits, "Songwriting wise, inevitably what you're living ends up in what you say and what you write about. Overall, maybe like a peaceful quality to the music?"
Amen Corner's opener, "Been Down That Road," sees the narrator looking at life with new priorities. The up-beat and jovial foot-stomper "Bringing My Baby Back Home" takes on literal meaning giving the trio of 2007 births, while the eloquent "Little Bit O' Me" finds a new parent hoping aloud that his child will carry a little bit of him with him/her as he/she grows and makes his/her way through this world.
|Tim Carbone - RRE :: 06.05.08 by Ian Rawn|
When they decided to get back to the recording in 2008, a new focus and tact was found. The band holed up at Lone Croft, Sheaffer's 300-year-old farmhouse in rural New Jersey, rather than the sterile confines of a traditional studio. Sheaffer had been gathering equipment and set up a home studio right where the band had begun writing songs in the first place.
"We were able to record everything as we rehearsed it and worked it out, and take it home that night, listen back to it and as we got deeper into songs and experimented with different arrangements, we chopped things up, extended things," Goessling explains. "We could go back and listen to the first, second or third take and say, 'You know, that's much better.' We'd work something to its utmost extreme, come back to the beginning and it was already on tape."
The entire process of writing and recording twelve new tracks, with two leftovers from the previous recording session, lasted less than a month, with no clock watching or financial worries about how much was being spent and what was getting accomplished. It was, as described by everyone, a dream come true to write and record Amen Corner. Sheaffer and Skehan, in particular, get quite excited when discussing the "spontaneous creativity" that went into this session.
|John Skehan - RRE :: 06.05.08 by Ian Rawn|
"It's all fresh material, and I personally like that about the process that we had," Sheaffer offers. "It's a coherent piece that comes from the same time, the same mood, the same place. I like that about it, rather than just a collection of songs that we happened to have around. They were all written together, recorded together, and I think it makes the album hang together real well because of that."
"Some of them were written as we went along," adds Skehan. "For example, 'Hard Livin' started one day as a guitar riff. We all started writing on it [and] Todd began playing early in the morning; things were fresh. We toyed with it for a little while, came back to it another day, added another part, and gradually over time it went from a jam to a song."
"One of the other nice things about having the setup we had going was waking up in the morning with a song in your head and bringing it immediately to the band, and recording it," continues Sheaffer. "That kind of immediacy is hard to come by. Sometimes you have a song around for ten years before you actually get a chance to record it, rather than, there's a song, 'Set up, let's record it.' The song 'Bringin' My Baby Back Home' is exactly like that."
There were other influences beyond the new family members that inspired the new songs. A television documentary on a notorious outlaw group in Arizona called "The Yuma Six" spurred Sheaffer's writing of the cowboy lament "You Never Know." His lovely acoustic strums mix with Carbone's lighthearted fiddle accents, while Skehan's warm mandolin meanders somewhere between the two.
|Railroad Earth by C. Taylor Crothers|
Carbone found inspiration a little bit more locally for "Crossing The Gap."
"I'm from the Delaware Water Gap area and every time I'd come home from New Jersey from a gig, it'd be very, very late and I'd see the morning star a lot of times, and I actually started talking to it. 'Oh yea, it's my old friend up there.' And then, 'Oh weight a minute, that's actually a cool little line. I'm going to write that down.' So, that song comes from the experience of driving home through a big canyon with a huge river alongside of you."
Railroad Earth thrives in the live setting, blossoming in front of a bunch of like-minded music fans that appreciate originality, improvisation and roots music. Similarly, they've built a name for themselves on the summer festival circuit. But, according to Sheaffer, with new priorities at hand, the band is looking forward to preparing for specific tours. The bands upcoming summer engagements will see them crisscross the country from July through mid-August, once again hitting the festival circuit. They'll stop at many usual spots, such as the All Good Festival and Floyd Fest. Sheaffer's also excited about being part of the lineup at Bamajam this year, where RRE will play alongside such country and rock greats as Hank Williams Jr. and Gov't Mule.
But perhaps the band's enthusiasm is best exemplified by Goessling, who rouses a huge laugh from the rest of the band when he states, "We're doing the big, tremendous, big boy on the block Rothbury Music Festival this year. I mean c'mon [in addition to Rothbury] we're going to be playing with Randy Travis, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Del McCoury Band, and [then at Rothbury] we're playing with Snoop Dogg!!!!"
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