Railroad Earth: Take My Hand

By: Dennis Cook

New Album
"Tell me have you heard the story going down the line?

Say the name Railroad Earth and instantly images of steam engines, high crested mountains and open plains spring to mind. There's a rooted romance to this band, a sonic cousin to Terrence Mallick's Days of Heaven, the lingering Wild West imagination, and traveling spirits up to their eyeballs in living, dreaming aloud and game to hit the road with just a carefully packed bindle and a pal or two. It's both a personal and widescreen vision that's finally finding fruition on album with the self-titled Railroad Earth (released October 12 on One Haven). Produced by Angelo Montrone (Matisyahu), the album pares back the group's sound and sharpens their focus, marking a new chapter in RRE's nearly decade long history.

"When the band first started we were intentionally focused on being more of a bluegrass band. The first shows we booked were like the Telluride and Grey Fox Bluegrass festivals, and we were a string band with a bluegrass approach and a drummer," explains singer-songwriter-guitarist Todd Sheaffer. "We've grown beyond that narrow category, and you can't really describe it that way anymore. There are elements of bluegrass, rock, pop, country and traditional music. It's a lot of stuff, and we've definitely gone past our original starting point. It's something much more than that now."

"This album is a demarcation point. This is Railroad Earth at this moment," says violinist-singer-guitarist Tim Carbone. "This record sounds different than any of our other records. For me, as the fiddle player, there's one actual solo on the album. But there are three times as many guitar solos, which is a departure. When I produce records I try to emphasize the songs, and I think that's what was going on here. The producer wanted to keep the arrangements sparse and focus more on the vocal arrangements. That creates some difficult choices live because the vocal arrangements aren't something we can completely, 100-percent duplicate live. So, we've had to make intelligent decisions about what vocals we do live."

Tim Carbone by Ian Rawn
The arrangements on Railroad Earth have a lot more air in them than previous studio releases, and while it doesn't mirror the live RRE mélange, it does allow individual instruments to shine while further utilizing the studio's pleasant differences.

"That was actually a conscious approach to make the arrangements less dense and focus on and support the melody more than passing solos around. [It's] a little more pop approach," says Sheaffer. "Other than The Good Life (2004), our albums are self-produced, and this is the first time since then that we've brought in a producer and turned it over to them to really shape and have significant input. Of course, we had discussions about what we wanted to do, and one thing we wanted was to do more with our vocal harmonies. We have a bunch of singers in the band and some really good ones, and it's a side that's been under-utilized in the past. There are a lot of vocal textures [on Railroad Earth] used in ways we haven't normally used them. We experimented and stretched our vocabulary."

"We got all six of us singing on some tracks like 'Long Walk Home.' It was pretty exciting," continues Sheaffer. "One of the things that gets overlooked about our group is Carey [Harmon's] singing. He does most of the harmony singing with me, and he gets singing parts above me, which can be pretty high, and he sings them with power. He has an incredible feel for singing harmony, where he's really feeling the mood and emotion of the songs not just playing the drum parts."

There's little doubt that Railroad Earth represents the band's best shot yet at penetrating the mainstream. "Long Walk Home" and "On The Banks" have strong single potential, and other than endlessly mining the jam scene that's already embraced RRE wholeheartedly, the mainstream represents the next logical step. The upside is that while they aren't likely to be bumping off Tom Petty or Paul Simon anytime soon, they do craft music with the same high level musicianship and stand a chance of snaring the general public that wants more than fluff from their radio rock.

Carey Harmon by Susan J. Weiand
"We're basically the sum total of all our influences, as most natural sounding bands are. Believe it or not, there's nothing overly contrived about us at all. We've never ever said, 'We need to write a song that sounds like this or that.' Yet somehow, we still manage to sound like ourselves, and I think that's one of our strengths," says Carbone. "We have a lot of options for sounds within the band. We have a number of multi-instrumentalists, so we have the luxury of artists with a full complement of colors available to them. I always advocate using ALL the colors, but I was sometimes a lone voice."

"There was a strong sense that we needed to stay on the acoustic side of things for a long time, but we got a producer this time out that said we needed to bring in some electricity. So, I immediately broke out the electric guitar on 'Black Elk Speaks' and he loved it," continues Carbone. "I played all the tremolo and feedback on that song, all the stuff that sounds like the world's about to be destroyed [laughs]. Live, I've figured out how to do that without destroying anything. In the studio, I blew up one of the producer's amplifiers. I was overfeeding it signal from this distortion box he had and felt the amp and it was red hot. He told me, 'Keep going! Don't worry about it!' At the end it was smoking out the back."

"We're holding fast to the [album] arrangements for the most part live. We've figured out the right ways to sing them with the layers of vocals in them. On the record, I'm like a little mini string orchestra, which I'm not able to reproduce live, but I'm playing parts that are sympathetic to the idea that there's more than one string part going on," says Carbone. "I'm a believer that a record is a separate kind of art form. We don't need to be overly worried about reproducing it live the way it is on record. We've always been really good at the live thing and we've made good records but not great ones. And I think [Railroad Earth] is our best one yet."

What Divides And Connects Us

Todd Sheaffer by Josh Miller
Beyond the shifts in style and approach, Railroad Earth is littered with big American ideas, stuffed with a drive and reach that has marked the best – and sometimes worst – parts of the American character, as exemplified by "The Jupiter & The 119" and "Black Elk Speaks."

"Those two songs, even though they're back to back, are sort of the thematic bookends of the record. The other songs touch on the ideas in these two in various ways. They're the ideological pillars of the album, the dark and the light of those big American ideas," says Sheaffer. "I wrote these songs around the time the Obama campaign was making its way around the country, really reviving a great American spirit as this momentous event is taking place and we're all a part of it. That kind of spirit is in ['The Jupiter & The 119], an optimism that we can overcome our differences and do great things. And 'Black Elk' is about a people who've been completely displaced and lost their home."

Within these two songs and the reverberations throughout the new album, Railroad Earth divines the conscience and ambition of the United States, the Westward Expansion spirit and the bloody trail it left behind. The bright lilt of "The Jupiter & The 119" is shaded by a clear-eyed engagement with death that ultimately lands the listener in "Potter's Field."

"'Day On The Sand' also comes to mind along those lines. It's a sad song but there's also redemption. That song is about clearing out the house of a loved one that had passed away, going down to box up their belongings and clear out the house and close it down. The last verse is the memorial service on the beach," explains Sheaffer, touching on the fact that Railroad Earth doesn't exactly make pop music despite a real facility with hooks and snappy choruses. Face it, Railroad Earth don't exactly churn out ditties. "That one definitely doesn't qualify as a ditty [laughs]. Somebody just dropped dead – sing along! But, I find those are the songs that really mean something to people, the songs that touch them and they crave and need, like the song 'Storms' from The Good Life. I can't tell you the number of people who've sent me letters and emails saying how much it meant to them, and other songs, too."

Railroad Earth by Dave Vann
One of the functions of music is to communicate these prime experiences in a form that transcends simple conversation. The melding of music, emotion and ideas truly is greater than the sum of its parts, particularly when the situations and feelings are as strong as death, birth and other signpost events in a life. Railroad Earth, under Sheaffer's stewardship as primary songwriter, excels at creating music that encapsulates and elevates these key moments that most of us experience. More simply, what they do is a good companion for the winding, rocky road, music for the long haul that lift heels and raises a weary head.

"When I first started out, a lot of my songs and shows were really funny. That's not always clear sometimes," chuckles Sheaffer. "We have a song called 'RV' that's in our shows these days, and it's kinda funny, light in spirit, but at the same time it's got a warmth and sweetness to it. It's about Phil and Stacy, who work for the band, and they started coming around and showing up at shows with their RV and cooking food for us and taking care of us. They had retired and this is what they wanted to do – cruise around the country with Railroad Earth. I have songs like that in addition to things like 'Black Elk."

Up Around The Bend

Andy Goessling by Susan J. Weiand
Like kindred predecessors the Grateful Dead and The Byrds, Railroad Earth taps into the Great American Songbook, which comprises the fine, enduring ideas drawn from every possible genre but derived from a distinctly American spirit that longs to blur lines and bring old ideas together into something new.

"If you don't have those limitations within yourself, then why not? It's the heart of this band really that we can do a LOT of different things," says Sheaffer. "We have some great players. For instance, Andy [Goessling] can not only do a lot of things but he can do them well. It just opens things up, even for me as a writer. I can bring any kind of material to the group and we can handle it."

And for anyone concerned about Railroad Earth putting a toe into the mainstream, there's still elements far outside the VH1 sanctioned corridors on RRE's latest. No one on that channel is offering up swinging, complex instrumentals like "Spring-Heeled Jack," for example.

Tim Carbone by Keith Berson
"That song was one take, completely live. There are no overdubs at all. It is as it was played," says Carbone. "Actually, a lot of the record is that way. Bass, drums, scratch vocal and scratch rhythm guitar were done first, and then we set up in the main room of this very small studio around three microphones facing each other and violin, guitar and mandolin were basically played live. Then, any of the string parts would be duplicated later, which was big. I would do two violin parts and a baritone violin part, and each part would be doubled or tripled. So, we're talking a minimum of nine tracks of violin and one time I think I did twelve [laughs]."

Much of Railroad Earth deals with life in sickness and in health, acknowledging the awful dips as well as the exhilarating highs.

"I don't think you can appreciate the highs if you haven't been through the lows," says Sheaffer. "I don't consciously try to write about anything. I write what's in my heart and on my mind at the time I'm writing a song, and I try to detail and capture it as honestly and purely as I can. Then, I find if I'm able to hone in on something that's true to me, I tend to find there's other people out there that relate to it and it means something to them. Ultimately, that's the goal and reward – to share this common bond of humanity with your family and friends through the idiom of music."

The sense one gets with Railroad Earth is their story is still unfolding. Rapidly approaching their tenth anniversary, it seems like much is still left to be written in their shared history.

"It's pretty wide-open," says Sheaffer. "It's just a matter of choosing which direction we'll go next."

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[Published on: 12/23/10]

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