Railroad Earth Takes a Live Ride

First Appeared in The Music Box, February 2006, Volume 13, #2

Written by Ken Burke


Railroad Earth

Singer/mandolinist John Skehan sounds vaguely amused while explaining the significance behind the title of Railroad Earth’s new double live disc for Sci Fidelity. "A couple of people have asked me, ‘What the hell is an Elko? What does that mean?,’" he explained. "They're not familiar with the song or the town or anything."

"The title track Elko sprang out of a little border town in Nevada that was usually our stopping point on the way back from or on the way to California," Skehan continues. "It usually fell on a night off — a drive day, when you end up in little casino towns where the rooms are very cheap and the bars are open all night long. So, you have a bunch of road-weary musicians pulling in and parking for the night and given full shore leave and liberty in a casino."

Crisscrossing the country almost ceaselessly since forming in 2001, Railroad Earth has parlayed its unique, rock-infused blend of bluegrass, Celtic folk, jazz, and world music into a hard-won reputation as one of the most innovative and freewheeling jam bands working today. As such, the ensemble attracts an especially distinctive and devoted audience.

"We see a lot of what you would call ‘Grateful’ moms and dads — Deadheads who have been at it for a while and are maybe getting up there a little bit, but are still very active and involved in a lot of music — up to octogenarians," reports Skehan from his home in New Jersey. "We’ve kind of gotten a little bit of everybody."

The group’s members honed their chops in several different musical aggregations prior to their involvement in Railroad Earth. Chief songwriter and lead vocalist Todd Sheaffer spearheaded the roots-oriented From Good Homes. Violinist Tim Carbone and multi-instrumental Andy Goessling toiled with the swing-oriented Blue Sparks from Hell. Skehan and drummer Carey Harmon worked together in the Bobby Syvarth Band. Like Skehan, upright bassist Johnny Grubb is an accomplished studio hand.

Railroad Earth came together as something of a happy accident. "We weren’t really planning on a particular sound," recalls Skehan. "The four of us — myself, Timmy, Todd, and Andy — began to get together in an acoustic format, just working on some new songs that Todd had been writing. The music just seemed to lend itself to the bluegrass complement of banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and acoustic guitar. Shortly afterwards, we found ourselves a bass player and then Carey Harmon — who is a very sensitive drummer — was the only person around who could sing tenor to Todd. We were just focused on the songs, but there also was something new that we weren’t quite able to put our fingers on."

"By the time we hit the road and began touring, we brought in [engineer] Mike Partridge, who was tremendously helpful in assisting us with keeping some semblance of an acoustic sound while also bringing things up to the level and fullness of a rock band. We’re all plugged in. We’re all amplified. We have drums. But we’re trying to keep the instruments somewhat clear and pure sounding, while also being able to fill a large room and have some impact — as opposed to just playing at the microphones or doing a real traditional-style presentation."

Although the group never has billed itself as a pure bluegrass ensemble, Railroad Earth did appear at some hardcore roots venues early in its formation. "We found ourselves playing at a few traditional bluegrass festivals where, as soon as they saw the amplifier and the drums roll out, you could hear the lawn chairs snapping shut," Skehan reminisces. "But I feel that those who have been willing to give it a try haven’t been disappointed."

Everyone in Railroad Earth can read music, and everyone takes a special delight in improvising and working in the moment. Towards that end, Goessling’s instrumental prowess has proven to be remarkably handy. "Andy plays banjo, Dobro, guitar — a couple of different guitar styles in different tunings," Skehan crows. "So, he usually has two or three guitars tuned up in different, crazy ways. He plays a wonderful mandolin as well. He plays flute and pennywhistle, and he occasionally plays clarinet and saxophone — sometimes two saxophones at once, in the style of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, which is pretty impressive. So, he can be a one-man horn section or he can be a string player. His most recent addition was the mountain dulcimer."

Railroad Earth’s creative soul is expressed through Sheaffer’s spiritually intense songs, which seem to be channeled as much as they are written. Skehan offers an example of this peculiar method from The Good Life, the group’s last studio album. "There's a track on there called Mourning Flies that really came about as a morning warm-up. As everybody sort of filtered in and picked up their instruments, this soundscape began to evolve. Next thing you know, Todd began singing. He has a really remarkable ability to start to sing something that has a definite, evolving melody, and he’ll mouth syllables that make you think that he’s actually singing something. He’ll pause for a moment and jot a few things down. Unwittingly, we’ll asking him what he’s singing and he’ll respond, ‘I don't know yet.’ Somehow he’s able to do it very spontaneously. In the case of Mourning Flies, I think that by the next day there was a completed song."

Recently, the members of Railroad Earth received the ultimate vote of confidence from one of their heroes, Grateful Dead bass-player Phil Lesh. "Our first encounter with Phil was when we were playing out in San Francisco," remembers Skehan. "He came backstage after the first set and was very complimentary to me. I could’ve walked away happy at that point. I think it was the following Monday that Timmy and I each received a phone call from him, asking us to join him at a special three-night run of shows at the Warfield in December. To me, the most interesting part of that experience was seeing what Phil had put together. As he described it, it was a ‘drama in three parts.’ Three sets: a tremendous range of material, but all very carefully put together and arranged by Phil for this large ensemble to tell a story over three nights through probably 60 different songs."

"The follow-up to that whole thing was going back out to play with him in February as a band. He invited all of Railroad Earth out to play at this Mardi Gras show."

As an "added pat on the back," Lesh included a pair of Railroad Earth’s songs in his first set. "He put together a journey that went from Cumberland Blues into The Goat from The Good Life. The Goat went back into Cumberland Blues and then into Storms, the lead-off track from our last album. Everything wound up with Uncle John’s Band."

The experience with Lesh encouraged Railroad Earth to be even more adventurous when improvising and segueing into other songs. It would prove useful when the band — which had released two studio albums on Sugar Hill — signed with Sci Fidelity for its next project Elko. Says Skehan, "We had been toying with the idea of a live record, and Sci Fidelity stepped up and said, ‘We’d like to do this, and we’d like to show you what we can do.’"

"After meeting a couple of the guys from String Cheese Incident, we developed a relationship — especially with guitarist and lead vocalist Billy [Nershi] and bass player Keith [Moseley] — through picking backstage. That was the beginning of our relationship, and we did a walkthrough with everybody at Sci Fidelity and the publicity firm Madison House. They’re just very ambitious, nice people."

Railroad Earth hopes that Elko, which was recorded in 2005 during the band’s spring tour, will provide fans with a viable sonic snapshot of the ensemble when it is improvising collectively. After all, live communication via instrumental interplay remains vital to its existence. "Having been together and playing a lot, it’s really wonderful to still be able to hit those moments," concludes Skehan. "A friend of mine once described it as ‘the nice place,’ which is when you get that moment where everything’s clicking, where you’re not conscious of what you’re playing, and where you’re almost anticipating what the other person is going to play before they play it, yet it’s still a surprise. There’s a Zen quality to it."

Editor's Note: This article has been edited and reprinted with the full
permission of Country Standard Time.


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