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Railroad Earth: Heroes of Hangtown

Blair Jackson | 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.”