Aspen Times Weekly Q&A: Railroad Earth’s John Skehan

by Andrew Travers
John Skehan of Railroad Earth, photographed performing at the 2012 Core Party concert in downtown Aspen.
Aspen Times file |

If You Go …

What: Railroad Earth

Where: Belly Up Aspen

When; Feb. 14 & 15, 9:30 p.m.

How much: $55-$70


The members of Railroad Earth had only played a handful of live shows around their native New Jersey and recorded five demo songs before they improbably landed a gig at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2001.

That show introduced the band to Colorado, and soon to the masses of passionate followers of string music and improvisation. Railroad Earth’s rocking approach to bluegrass and their freewheeling concerts have made them the kind of band that music lovers orient their lives around.

The band returns to Aspen for a two-night run at Belly Up on Feb. 14 and 15. I spoke to Railroad Earth mandolin player John Skehan on the phone during a recent tour break.

ANDREW TRAVERS: Warren Haynes was in town earlier this winter, playing the “Ashes & Dust” material he recorded with Railroad Earth last year. What did you learn from making a record with him?

JOHN SKEHAN: A cool thing about it — and Warren is pretty much the definition of cool, so you know going into it that it’s going to be a good time – but we got the call that said, “Warren’s good to go. Can you guys do it next week?” We happened to be around to do it between a couple shows. But my first question, as always, was “Are there demos, so that I can start studying and learning and charting things out. The answer we all got was, “Warren wants to do it on the spot, and do a couple a day.” That’s just how we did it.

Every session every day literally started with him bringing an acoustic guitar into the control room and everybody sketching out some quick notes. We’d throw down three or four takes then we’d say, “Well, do we have it? Can we beat it?” And we’d move on to the next one.

Some of them he deliberately reserved for the midnight, 1 a.m. sessions. He’d say, “Let’s wait until the end of the night, do a couple takes, and get that vibe.”

We recorded at least 25 or 26 all together, just setting them up and knocking them down, from acoustic to more rock to ethereal mood pieces. It was one of those things — we experience it with Railroad Earth, too — where we play the song better before we really know it. There’s something in just doing those takes and capturing that vibe.

AT: So you’re playing three nights in Denver, and two nights here in Aspen. You do a lot of these multi-night runs, and some hardcore fans are sure to hit all the Colorado shows. How do you craft the arc of performances over multiple days?

JS: You do end up in a mindset, where rather than a first set and second set you’re looking at Friday, Saturday, Sunday and the overall arc. We change things up night to night, as much to keep ourselves on our toes as to keep the audience interested.

AT: The Railroad Earth connection with fans and audiences is uniquely intimate and personal. Is that something you guys consciously wanted to cultivate? Or did it just kind of happen on the road?

JS: It just kind of happens. We’re very blessed to have that kind of audience that really wants to be with you and see where you’re going to go. It keep us from doing the same thing night after night. They want to take the ride with us. And this scene that we’re in, and that we share with so many of our other brother bands out there, you’re blessed because you have a segment of fans that make live music a big part of their lives. It’s not, “OK, I’m going to go to the Enormodome to see Sting once a year.” They plan their vacations, their lives, their weddings, around going to hear live music. They make it a sacrament of their lives. We’re lucky to share that with them.

AT: Your song “Colorado,” from the first album, where did it come from and what inspired it?

JS: Colorado has been an interesting recurring theme throughout our existence. That came from a banjo riff that Andy [Goessling] had, and it kind of began to come together as we were first trying to figure this thing out. We recorded a short disc of demos that got passed around and we got enough positive feedback on that that we were able to go out and buy a crappy beat up old red van and tour, which led us to go, “Let’s take these five or six songs and add five more so we have something to tour with.”

Part of that initial tour was this big and scary thing that happened: we got a slot at Telluride. So of course one of the lyrics is, “Down the rocks run the cool rushing waters,” thinking about being on that stage in Telluride and looking out to the one end of town where the canyon ends and there’s that beautiful stream running down it. So it was just, well, I guess we’re bound for Colorado.

AT: That first show in Telluride gets talked about like it was really the genesis of Railroad Earth as we know it. Coming out of that show did the band find its identity?

JS: No. I don’t think we had any idea. We were just swept up in something, saying, “What is this thing?” It’s one thing to go in a studio and do some local shows to tune things up and experiment with songs. In that first year and beyond we were just learning what this thing is.

AT: Your progressive bluegrass style fit in with the tradition of Colorado bluegrass — New Grass Revival and Leftover Salmon and company. Do you approach a Colorado show any differently than elsewhere?

JS: I think we’ve always just done what we do. Colorado is receptive to it. Especially in the early days, we didn’t set out to be a bluegrass band or a rock band with bluegrass instruments — we were just working with this body of songs that Todd [Scheaffer] had come up with and that we had contributed to. We were just lucky that Colorado is a place you can come out with bluegrass instruments, put drums behind you, and do some more exploratory improvisation in that context and nobody looks at it as completely bizarre or anything.