Railroad Earth: Heroes of Hangtown
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.