Railroad Earth: Heroes of Hangtown
“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?”