Railroad Earth: Pickin’ Up A Storm (Relix Revisited)
Today we look back to the February/March 2006 issue of Relix for this feature on Railroad Earth
It’s well past two in the morning, and New York State Troopers are stepping over scores of black and yellow Railroad Earth stickers, which in the chilly night have become one with this icy black patch of Interstate 87. Shards of jewel cases, the crushed remains of dozens of copies of The Black Bear Sessions and Bird in a House, are trickling out of the band’s equipment trailer, inside of which a custom kick-drum and an upright bass have been reduced to firewood. Milling about are the six members of Railroad Earth, each having emerged unharmed but rattled from their totaled touring van, which is stuck in a nearby ditch on the side of the road.
Just a few moments ago, the band, spent from the night’s set at Higher Ground, was settling into the long drive from Vermont to their homes in and around Jersey when—crunch-boom!—their van was spinning off the freeway, leaving the band members to step out one by one, wondering what in the hell just happened. Towering above them on the edge of the highway is a seething beast of an 18-wheeler that miraculously failed to devour its prey—although still managing to completely sever trailer from van, hitch and all.
Two years later, multi-instrumentalist John Skehan is thinking back to that November night in 2003, recalling his surprise upon stepping out of the van: “I remember looking up and thinking, ‘ That’s what hit us? Are you kidding ?’ We already thought we should be dead, but then we saw an 18-wheeler and we were like, ‘Wait a minute!’”
From nearly the minute they formed, some two years earlier, the band had hit the road hard, and in recent months, the road, it seemed, was starting to hit back. Just a few months before the accident on I-87, the vintage tour bus the guys had slaved to buy caught on fire, before croaking to its death a week before the Higher Ground show. Unfazed, they revved up their old Ford van and pressed on with another gig relatively close to home. Because the bus breakdowns had temporarily hemorrhaged cash from band reserves, they were driving all night home to save 150 bucks in hotel rooms.
Standing in the ditch peering up at the jackknifed semi, it sure seemed like a message was being sent, says Skehan. “It really felt like somebody was saying, ‘Alright, you guys need to chill the hell out.’ It was like, ‘Okay, they’ve thrown everything at us that I think they can,’ from this to waking up to a bus on fire. I remember thinking at the time, ‘Well, I hope we’ve earned the necessary rock and roll merit badges.’”
In their first four years, the band has done that and more. Since casual jam sessions morphed into a full-time gig with boundless creative opportunities for its six members, Railroad Earth has become a band of virtual eagle scouts of the hippie highway, musical adventurers who criss-cross the country bending and blending folk and bluegrass with rock and pop, fanning the fire of Monroe-meets-Garcia folk-rock with building success. If they pushed themselves a wee far in their infant years, well, it wasn’t without reason—they were onto something.
Today, some two years removed from the black-ice incident in upstate New York, the band’s laughing—well, half-laughing—about its fate that night. Assembled around a massive stone fireplace—the whip-crack of sparking logs soundtracking their memories—Skehan and company are gathered at the cozy but quaint 18th century home of frontman Todd Sheaffer, unfurling the Railroad Earth story, and chatting about their new double live disc, Elko.
This stretch of the Stillwater, New Jersey, countryside plays a lead role in that story. It was here that Sheaffer, Skehan and fellow multi-instrumentalists Tim Carbone and Andy Goessling’s back-porch pickin’ sessions gave rise to Railroad Earth. And it was a friend’s barn around the corner that the band cut its most recent studio disc, The Good Life.
In honor of Umphrey’s McGee’s return to Summer Camp this weekend, we present the group’s Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger performing this version of “The Pequod” from UM’s Anchor Drops.
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The Milk Carton Kids share the first song from their new album, The Ash & Clay.
Here is the new video from Serbian guitar ace Ana Popovic. “Object Of Obsession” appears on her latest album Can You Stand The Heat.
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