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...

 
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.

-Andy Goessling

 
Photo by: C. Taylor Crothers

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?"

Tim Carbone - RRE :: 06.05.08 by Ian Rawn
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.

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."

John Skehan - RRE :: 06.05.08 by Ian Rawn
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.

"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."

Railroad Earth by C. Taylor Crothers
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.

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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Comments

Greatwaves Tue 6/17/2008 06:12PM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Greatwaves

Railroad Earth is the bomb, great song writing and great jams...keep up the good work boys see you at Rothbury if im not at Snoop Doggs set. love you boys keep kickin ass

afried90 starstarstarstar Tue 6/17/2008 07:59PM
+8 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Pretty good article for a really fantastic band. I can't get enough of them. Oh, and by the way. . . the CD name is Bird in a House, NOT Bird in a Cage

mcbacuma Tue 6/17/2008 09:23PM
+3 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

mcbacuma

Nice article Bill. Can't wait to see these guys again in Portland.

Sizlunt starstarstarstarstar Tue 6/17/2008 10:48PM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Sizlunt

I remember watching these guys play in front of about 40 people at this tiny little venue in Newcastle, CA. Nice to see them getting the attention they deserve, they are excellent.

Sizlunt Tue 6/17/2008 11:06PM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Sizlunt

lol at "Bird in a Cage" BTW.

‹^› ‹(•¿•)› ‹^› {¬¿¬} starstarstarstarstar Wed 6/18/2008 05:45AM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

‹^› ‹(•¿•)› ‹^›      {¬¿¬}

the new album is the best they have done yet, IMO.

monodub starstarstarstar Wed 6/18/2008 07:51AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

"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."

'weight' does not equal 'wait'

I am available for a proofreading position.

moephishH2O starstarstarstarstar Wed 6/18/2008 08:24AM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

moephishH2O

Looking forward to Eugene tomorrow night!

philhitz Wed 6/18/2008 08:45AM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

i though 'amen corner' was taken from augusta national - home of the masters golf tournament - lol -- but seriously these guys are great -- looking forward to seeing them more & more in the future -- i hope they start to the hit O-H a bit more -- excellent set (& recording) from sprinh hookahville this year.

magsouth Wed 6/18/2008 08:46AM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Railroad Earth has been my favorite band for several years. I've seen them at many festivals...it seems however that the musical tone of some festivals seems to be turning, as the enormous proliferation of new festivals (which are now driving the music business) has become the trend of the year. Consequently, fest promoters are turning more and more to the "indie (rock) bands" (an oxymoron of sorts, as most of them are extremely commercial in their appeal).

Railroad Earth was missed at Wakarusa this year. Last year, the reviewer who who wrote for Jambase actually seemed to characterize them as being too laid-back or lightweight or something stupid for the Wakarusa crowd. Give me a break. RE kicks major ass all the time...and why is it that the "Americana" and "jam band" style groups are becoming endangered species at the festivals which were founded on these styles?

cascade_bob starstarstarstarstar Wed 6/18/2008 12:32PM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

I hope they don't get too big because the venue sizes tend to get bigger with the success. I'm not wishing ill will. I'm being selfish. I want to see them in the more intimate venues, so I can sing along to my own personal band. Railroad Earth Rules! C-ya Friday in PDX!

moeMan1 starstarstarstarstar Wed 6/18/2008 12:44PM
+5 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

moeMan1

i had never seen these guys before or listened to their music. last saturday i went and saw them at the Ogden Theatre in Denver and was completely blown away. the venue was packed to the seams (capacity 1300) and was just an absolute throw down! I will definately make sure i see them every time they come to CO. If you have not checked out this band do so in the near future, im pissed it took me this long to give them a try.

pokycheese starstarstarstarstar Wed 6/18/2008 02:02PM
+4 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

pokycheese

These guys tore Boise apart last night with one big 2hr set..tons of fun w/huge jams...

after the show we got to meet Carbone- way cool dude- when we asked about their Rothbury set he smiled and said, "That's going to be some real late night fun definately not ending at 1:30." good way to end the night

Mark Price former NBA star Wed 6/18/2008 02:10PM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Mark Price former NBA star

love the earth, can't wait to see them for two night at Yarmony Grass.

daddyfatsack Wed 6/18/2008 04:19PM
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Why do they never play Chicago?

Greatwaves Wed 6/18/2008 04:36PM
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Greatwaves

i saw em in chicago in o5 during the BiG summer classic tour, left that then went and saw em at Martyrs, it was awesome, chillin with the new monssoon boys, great times

dreadyknowsbest starstarstarstarstar Wed 6/18/2008 05:28PM
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dreadyknowsbest

CHUG A CHUGA CHOO CHOO! I HEAR A TRAIN A ROLL'N

Bill Clifford Wed 6/18/2008 06:18PM
+3 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Hello my fellow Hobos,

Sorry for the "weight" mis-use of the word, as well as for the incorrect album title. My bad indeed, as I should get this kind of vital info correct. Thanks fo the comments anyway. Can't wait to catch the band again at All Good. See ya there?

shonuff Thu 6/19/2008 04:48AM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

I caught these guys at the Park West in Chicago in 2006. They played a really quick first set, but there was definitely alot of energy at the show. Great sound though, and I should probably check out the new cd.

fnghhhh Thu 6/19/2008 05:16AM
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i'll see you there bill

DAMONCORY starstarstarstarstar Thu 6/19/2008 10:14AM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

DAMONCORY

Love these guys, lots of shows in the midwest coming up to!

09-16-08 @ Cabooze, gonna be fun!

thedrugsdontwork starstarstarstarstar Thu 6/19/2008 01:18PM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

thedrugsdontwork

great article, great band. thanks jambase. i've yet to see these guys live, but my most recent ex-girlfriend totally turned me on to them. i had the chance a few months ago at langerado, but i just couldn't go. i'm also a little sad i missed out on Sam Bush, R.E.M. and Phil Lesh, but like the French say, c'est la vie......

Jazzzzz starstarstarstarstar Thu 6/19/2008 03:35PM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Jazzzzz

Love you guys!

See you @ High Sierra and SF at the Filmore! Looking in my mail box for the new CD any day now!

moephishH2O starstarstarstarstar Fri 6/20/2008 09:06AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

moephishH2O

What a show last night! Holy Crap!! Eugene was rockin! Go see 'em where ever you can!

Entangled Minds Clothing Fri 6/20/2008 01:42PM
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Entangled Minds Clothing

im ready for the crystal tonight!!!

get ready ptown!

Greatwaves Sat 6/21/2008 10:49AM
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Greatwaves

another great thing is that these guys collaborate with everyone. seeing them jam out with cheese, or greensky bluegrass... EPIC.... Tim Carbone is the hardest working musician today, he played a show with EOTO (electronic), Greensky, and some funk band down in Orleans... he can do it all and similiarly so can Andy Goesling

mcbacuma Sat 6/21/2008 05:42PM
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mcbacuma

Still recovering from last night at the Crystal. What a show! It was the best RRE I've seen to date. The jamming with Scott Law was incredible and the theatrics from Peak Productions was great. Have fun tonight Seattle. If I could make the drive, I would.

RedHeaven starstarstarstarstar Mon 6/23/2008 08:33AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

RedHeaven

THANK YOU JAMBASE! Railroad Earth has been at the top of my favorite list for years now, thanks to HIGH SIERRA for bringing them out here in 2001. I will never forget the magic of my first show as they opened for Yonder late nite and their song "HEAD" was the closest I have been to flying in my life. Because we've been absent of their usual touring in Norcal, Im gearing up for High Sierra like never before. Only amazing reviews of Denver and PacNW, making the excitement bubble fiercely!!! RRE = I would rather be here now than anywhere in history. Something so harmonious is hard for me to deny the sweetness of the good feelings this band gives. Everything from songwriting to musicianship to live shows and their beautiful stage presence. HIGH SIERRA ALL ABOARD!?!?!?! A whole evening show on the big stage and an ALL NIGHT LONG party in the hall! IM SO READY!! Ive already memorized Amen Corner. :) Cant wait to see all of you hobos once again!!

Brooklynn starstarstarstarstar Mon 6/23/2008 01:41PM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Brooklynn

These guys killed it in denver... they have blown pretty much any other live show i've seen yet in 08, couldn't stop moving the whole show!! Love these guys!

mattguff9 starstarstarstar Mon 6/23/2008 09:28PM
-1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

mattguff9

RRE is a good solid once a year live experience and Elko is a great live album. However, the flute and overamplified drums on some songs detract from their sound. I would prefer more subtle percussion so the mando & guitar are more up front. Oh, and they should never let hackensaw boys open again b/c no headliner can match that small venue energy.

jerryil starstarstarstarstar Tue 6/24/2008 10:52AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

jerryil

Todd Schaffer is one of the best writers on the scene today! If you don't know these guys, check them out. FYI: Amen Corner blows all of their other studio efforts out of the water.

misterpi starstarstarstarstar Thu 6/26/2008 04:42PM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

misterpi

Dude Railroad Earth puts on one of the sickest shows ever. I already got a 2 pass for both nights theyre playing in Boulder. Its at the fox sep. 19th and 20th which kicks ass because my birthdays on the 20th!