Railroad Earth: Heroes of Hangtown

Blair Jackson on July 10, 2014

It’s Thursday, April 3, which means tonight’s stop is The Fillmore in Charlotte, N.C. Last night was the Bijou in Knoxville, Tenn., and coming up in Railroad Earth’s stretch of five straight shows this week are gigs at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta and Nashville’s 3rd and Lindsley.

Over the course of these five evenings, the band will play more than 80 different songs—the overwhelming majority of them originals—but they will intersperse them with cover tunes written or popularized by such diverse artists as Roy Acuff, George Harrison, Bill Monroe, the Allman Brothers, Doc Watson, Tom Waits and the Everly Brothers. That list alone says something about where Railroad Earth is coming from. With their largely acoustic instrumentation—heavy on guitar, fiddle, banjo and mandolin—they are ideally suited to tackle the bluegrass, old timey and Celtic songs that they sometimes play. But with their cracking drums, occasional soulful horns and clear rock influences, which range from the Grateful Dead to The Band, The Beatles, Bob Dylan and so many others, Railroad Earth is tough to pigeonhole. Somehow, even when that amplified acoustic lead guitar is at its most Garcia-esque, they still manage to make everything they play sound like Railroad Earth.

In recent months, they’ve shared their distinctive sonic signature across the country at such iconic venues as Los Angeles’ The Troubadour, Portland, Ore.’s Crystal Ballroom and, for three nights, The Fillmore in San Francisco. Come late spring and summer, they’ll find their biggest exposure on the festival circuit, hitting a wide range of events such as DelFest in Cumberland, Md., the second BottleRock in Napa, Calif., Milwaukee’s humongous Summerfest and FreshGrass in North Adams, Mass. In between, there are a bunch of dates with longtime fellow travelers Yonder Mountain String Band before Railroad Earth’s August headlining gig at Red Rocks, with support from Greensky Bluegrass and the Wood Brothers.

Despite the relentless touring—more than 1,300 shows since 2001—the group is infused with a new energy and enthusiasm following the January release of their new album, Last of the Outlaws. This marks six studio recordings from the group—along with the superb two-disc live set Elko—and Outlaws is certainly their most ambitious and adventurous work.

So, it’s no wonder that singer/guitarist Todd Sheaffer and fiddler/guitarist/singer Tim Carbone are in upbeat moods when reached in Charlotte the afternoon before their Fillmore gig. “The new stuff is going over really well,” the more talkative Carbone says. “People always seem to be hungry for new material from us, which is a great position to be in as a band, of course. More times than not, we get people who are respectful about what we’re trying to do.”

The more reserved Sheaffer adds, “We’ve been experimenting a lot with the new material live, especially with what we call ‘the opus’”—a complex, seven-part suite of songs and instrumental sections with no overarching title that stretches out to nearly 21 always-compelling minutes. It’s bookended on either side by a pair of alternately dark and hopeful songs by Sheaffer, while the interior is an intricate and evocative weave of different instrumental moods, textures, rhythms and tempos, mostly composed by mandolin, bouzouki and piano player John Skehan. “We’ve been using various sections of the suite in different contexts with different segues, as well as on certain nights playing the piece in its entirety. Some nights we feel like we want to do some but not all of it, so it’s taken on different forms. It’s a lot to ask of an audience to make it through the entire ‘opus.’ Luckily, we have fans who are willing to give us that artistic freedom and go along with us.”

It’s been that way since the beginning of the Railroad Earth saga. If you didn’t know anything about the band, then you might guess that they were from some rural enclave in North Carolina or, given their “jamgrass” bona fides, Colorado or Northern California. But they’re actually from New Jersey—specifically the prettier, more rural northwestern part that earned the “Garden State” tag on the state’s license plates. All of the group’s original members had been kicking around the area’s music scene for years before they got together as Railroad Earth. While Sheaffer made the rounds fronting From Good Homes, fiddler Carbone and multi- instrumentalist Andy Goessling (acoustic guitar, mandolin, dobro, banjo, reeds, penny whistle, recorder) played together in a couple of long-lasting bands. Carbone, Skehan and drummer/percussionist Carey Harmon also backed a few singer-songwriters and worked in the studio together.

The quartet of Goessling, Carbone, Skehan and Sheaffer coalesced at a series of picking parties at Goessling’s house, then added drummer Harmon and bassist Dave Von Dollen. Between them, they had a ton of both mutual and different influences and a shared conversational approach to playing—instruments “talking” to and with each other and joining on sympathetic unison flights—and in Sheaffer there was a distinctivesingingandsongwritingvoice. They took their name from a Jack Kerouac poetic-prose ramble about “ole Frisco”—“October in the Railroad Earth.”

The group’s manager, Brian Ross, urged the new ensemble to make a five-song demo tape, which he optimistically sent to Telluride Bluegrass Festival chief Craig Ferguson. Much to everyone’s shock, Ferguson booked Railroad Earth for the June 2001 festival, sight unseen.

“We barely had any gigs at that point,” Carbone recalls. “We were like, ‘Maybe we should book some gigs if we’re gonna be a real band and show up at the festival.’ So we went from almost nothing—barely even having played—to suddenly being on the main stage in front of 5,000 people. And by the way, it’s at 10,000 feet so none of us could breathe,” he adds with a laugh. “But it was a great start for the band.”

If it wasn’t quite a Janis-at-Monterey Pop moment, then news of their Telluride triumph—and similar successes at the All Good Music Festival and at High Sierra—served as impressive calling cards for the nascent band, as did the completion of The Black Bear Sessions, which included the five tunes from the demo tape along with another handful of newly recorded ones, all of which the band still performs.

In 2002, their second year, Railroad Earth played around 160 shows in just about every setting imaginable—clubs, brewpubs, colleges, theaters, saloons, cafés, ballrooms and, yes, many festivals—and the word started to spread about the group’s idiosyncratic and often jammy bluegrass/ rock/country/jazz/Celtic-fusion. They took bookings all over, year- round, and that same wanderlust seems to influence their far- ranging travels today, though a lot of the gigs are bigger, of course. It helps, too, that they have been able to keep the band mostly intact—Johnny Grubb replaced original bassist Von Dollen in 2003 and current bassist Andrew Altman took his place in 2010.

“Honestly, when the band started, I didn’t know what ‘jamband’ was,” Carbone acknowledges. “For some reason, the whole concept had escaped me—it was not on my radar. So when our manager said that we would be able to play in this genre, I didn’t really know what he was talking about. But I quickly realized that ‘jamband’ didn’t have as much to do with the bands as the audience, and how they had a thirst for live music that had firm roots in improvisation but also had good songs. They also wanted to see something different from the bands all the time—whether it was different improvisations on the songs, or actually different songs.

“Within that, we sort of fell into this other subgenre of a subgenre, which was ‘jamgrass,’ which was a whole other thing—I didn’t know what the hell that was, either. I think the first band we became aware of in that scene was Yonder Mountain. They were a rung or two above us in the food chain, so to speak—and still are, I think— and we realized a lot of the crowd that came to see us would also go to see them. Then, when we played in California the second time we were at High Sierra, I ran into the guys from Hot Buttered Rum. And from there, we’ve met all the others we get lumped in with and compared to. I think a lot of it is the similarity in our instrumentation, rather than the similarity in our music because if you listen to Yonder Mountain and you listen to Hot Buttered Rum and Greensky Bluegrass and us, yes there are some similarities, but we’re all definitely doing different things, too.”

Railroad Earth played “only” 80 gigs last year, mostly because they took their time making Last of the Outlaws. It was recorded at engineer Dean Rickard’s West Jersey studio, RR Sound, and mixed in LA by Ted Hutt at Kingsize Soundlabs. They cut the album live in the studio with the whole band tracking at once, but augmented the results with a variety of overdubs, some of them at Rickard’s studio, others laid down by Carbone—a self-described “recording geek”—at his own home studio. Lead and backing vocals were all added after the fact, too.

“I’m really proud of this record,” Sheaffer says, “but then, I come from the era when records meant more. I’m fully aware that they’re not really as important anymore, and obviously people don’t buy them the way they once did. But they’re still important to a band, and the reason is that’s where you grow artistically. It was a real challenge to do what we did with these songs. You really focus in on the arrangements and all the musical elements. You experiment with instruments, tones, colors.

“Live, you play something and a second later, it’s gone—you’ve moved on. But if it has to live forever on a record, you want to get it right. You want to arrange the music in the right way, and for me, of course, I have to write songs. There’s not going to be a record if I don’t write songs, and it’s a way for me as a writer to hone in on ideas and thoughts. I find out what’s on my mind, and what’s going on with the band, and I think about it. Because I have to,” he chuckles.

Last of the Outlaws boasts a typically varied cache of songs. Sheaffer explains he envisioned the two pieces of “the opus” with lyrics—“All That’s Dead May Live Again” and “Face with a Hole”—as “death and rebirth, and also looking at our culture of violence. In the aftermath of these horrific violent acts, we always come together and try to sort it out.” It was John Skehan’s idea to give the suite’s instrumental pieces Latin names, as in a requiem mass.

“Hangtown Ball” is a slightly more lighthearted look at death. Sheaffer wrote the number as a “theme song” for the band’s annual Halloween-time festival in the California Gold Country town of Placerville, known as Hangtown because of all the executions that took place there in the town’s Wild West days.

“It’s good and evil, sin and redemption,” Sheaffer discloses, “things we struggle with every day. The bridge kind of sums up that idea: ‘Every day is another day to beg for mercy, kneel and pray/ Before they string you up and drop you down.’ For that one, I did a little research while we were out there. I went to this historical society and looked into some of the characters who ended up in the noose, and some of their stories, and tried to get a feel for the names and the time and vibe of the place. It was a lot of fun. I actually had more verses and more names than I could fit in the song, but it was getting way too long. And I ended up using a few names of friends of mine from high school, and one of them was the name of a restaurant down the street from me— ‘Elias Cole.’

“There’s also stuff about being in the band and life on the road: ‘One More Night on the Road,’ obviously, and even ‘The Last of the Outlaws,’ in a way. There are a lot of ways to look at that song, but one of them is it being about the end of a certain lifestyle.” The closing “Take A Bow” could also be inter- preted as being about the band and its fans.

“Some of the new songs are a little tricky, live,” Carbone offers. “‘The Last of the Outlaws’ requires disciplined listeners to really get it, and that can be tough depending on the place and the crowd. When Andy pulls out the bass clarinet on that, people are like, ‘What the hell is that?’ Then, there’s that ambient delay loop, which I made in the studio with a reverb on a ‘church’ setting.”

“I really enjoy the space that song creates,” Sheaffer adds. “Some people are completely mesmerized and right there with us. There are other people who came to party and maybe that’s a chance for them to take a sip of their drink and tell their friends what happened last week,” he says with a laugh.

Carbone has a specific thought on Sheaffer’s songwriting approach. “The way Todd writes is timeless,” he says, “or exists outside of time, in that same way as a lot of Robert Hunter’s songs. He has a way of writing that it says something to one person a certain way, and something different to another person. That’s why it appeals to a wide variety of people—‘Wow, this could be about me. I’ve experienced this. I’ve been down this road.’”

Other songs on Last of the Outlaws, including the cautiously hopeful “Chasin’ A Rainbow” and a gentle tune about a magical locale in North Carolina called “Grandfather Mountain,” are more traditional Railroad Earth pieces—the former is a tuneful Celtic-bluegrass-rock jaunt with an irresistible hook, while the latter is propelled by a rich blend of dobro, fiddle and mandolin and features a lovely lead vocal by Shaeffer. The soulful “Monkey” is reminiscent of The Band, while bassist Altman’s striking contribution, “When the Sun Gets in Your Blood,” sounds like King Sunny Adé meets U2 on a back porch in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

“When the Sun” is also one of several songs that employs somewhat unusual instrumentation for this group—electric guitar and Hammond B3 organ. Goessling adds expressive bass clarinet elsewhere, “Take A Bow” utilizes a Carbone “string section”—he plays all the parts—and B3, and, as Sheaffer notes, “there’s a lot more piano [from Skehan] and it’s used in a more central way, especially on ‘Tuba Mirum’ [in ‘the opus’]. That’s driven by the piano, which is a first for us, really. So this album is definitely stretching the band instrumentally in a lot of ways. We’re always experimenting with sounds that might fit and enhance and color the music in interesting and appropriate ways: ‘Is this instrument going to sound good on this?’ ‘I don’t know—let’s try it!’ That’s part of the fun of making a record.”

The show at the Fillmore in Charlotte is relatively light on new material. “Hangtown Ball” is a first-set crowd-pleaser— how can you not dig a song that namechecks a bunch of poor souls who meet the noose and describes their crimes? “Chasin’ A Rainbow” sits between Skehan’s spry Celtic instrumental “Carrying Coal to Newcastle” and George Harrison’s “Any Road.” And an extended “Grandfather Mountain” comes out of one of the band’s most popular and enduring early jamming tunes—“Like A Buddha” (from 2002’s Bird in a House)—to close the second set. The rest of the show is an invigorating mix of songs from different Railroad Earth eras and albums, all showcasing the group’s boundless energy, joie de vivre and a nearly mystical alchemy that seemingly binds the band (and their fans) together night after night, year after year.

When pressed, Carbone shares some of the low moments on their long journey. “We’ve gone through all the various things any band goes through,” he says. “In the first three years, it was not atypical for us to do nine-week tours in a van and trailer. There would be eight of us, four to a hotel room, rotating out of the bed and onto the floor. I’m 57. So when this was going on 10 or 11 years ago, I was 47-48 years old. What 47-year-old guy wants to be sleeping on a hotel room floor with three other people snoring in your face? And by the way, I snore louder than any of them. So you go through that, and we were also making crap for money.

“Believe it or not, I’m not complaining,” he continues. “The first two years, my wife was in graduate school and I was making like $150 a week. And I had to take a second mortgage on my house just to afford to stay in the band. I always saw the potential of something really, really good—and from the beginning, we all enjoyed making music together. Then, we also had this amazing fan support that seemed to always be building. I discussed it with my wife and she said, ‘You should absolutely follow this through.’ So you hit that moment of ‘How can I afford to do this?’ but somehow, you figure it out and you power through it. Now, how could you think anything but that it’s been worth it?”