Fiddler Tim Carbone catches ride to Aspen with Great American Taxi
ASPEN – Tim Carbone is in some danger of being pigeonholed as a certain kind of fiddler, at least in Aspen. In September, the 53-year-old Pennsylvania musician played a sold-out Belly Up show as a member of Railroad Earth, a band that crosses bluegrass and acoustic rock. On Wednesday, Dec. 2, Carbone is featured as a guest player with Great American Taxi, the Colorado country-rock band headed by Vince Herman, best known as the frontman of Leftover Salmon.These are hardly bad career affiliations. Railroad Earth has been on a slow but steady climb since pulling out of the station – actually, an impromptu jam session in rural northwestern New Jersey – in 2001. Their Belly Up gig left dozens stranded without tickets, and they have made appearances at Bonnaroo, Rothbury and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Great American Taxi, formed four years ago, is likewise on an uphill course. They are set to release the album “Reckless Habits,” an ambitious mix of funk, gospel, rock and country produced by Carbone, early next year.But for 40 years, Carbone has yearned to break free of stylistic bonds. Into his early teens he was strictly a classical player, and even though his father was a blues fanatic and his mother had played trombone in dance bands, Carbone was unaware that his violin could be used to do something other than play music that was composed down to the note, most of it written centuries ago.Carbone’s ignorance came to an end when, at the age of 13, he came upon an LP by Sugarcane Harris. The out-of-focus photograph of Harris caught his eye, and the music he heard – blues, played on the violin – changed his life.”I learned all the licks off that record and realized there was something more going on there with the instrument. That I could do something other than play classical music,” said Carbone, who had grown up on the eastern end of Long Island, and began playing music in the public schools there. That opened the heavens, and the flood of musical styles poured over Carbone. Within a year he had joined a blues band; another year on, he discovered the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” album, which featured the fiddle playing of Vassar Clements; the French-born jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty; and Jerry Goodman, who would become the violinist in the fusion group, the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Fiddlers seemed to appear from out of nowhere: Carbone had seen the roots rock band Hot Tuna perform, and there had been no fiddle, yet soon after, when the group’s second album came out, fiddler Papa John Creach was a significant part of the sound. Again, Carbone got the album and stole all the fiddle licks.”By the time I was a senior, I realized I could play anything I damn well pleased on the instrument,” Carbone said.Looking over his history, it can appear that Carbone has done just that. In 1978, he joined the Blue Sparks From Hell. The New Jersey band had been formed a year earlier as a Nitty Gritty Dirt Band-type outfit – bluegrass fortified by a drum kit – but the members, en masse, soon took a deep interest in old Louis Jordan and Wynonie Harris records, and changed course to become to play jump-swing music. Carbone knew the style well from his father’s old 78s. The Blue Sparks, Carbone said, “toured like madmen till 1990. We played between 175 and 250 shows every year.”When the Blue Sparks burned out, Carbone and his Blue Sparks mate Andy Goessling launched Kings in Disguise. The group focused on Carbone’s original music, though for two years it also served as the backing band for Rick Danko, the bassist from The Band. The Kings’ run lasted a full decade, a period whenCarbone took on such off-stage but music-related jobs as DJ-ing on a public radio station; working in a record store; producing and engineering recording projects; and analyzing sound for a high-end home speaker company. In early 2001, Carbone and Goessling were part of an acoustic jam session led by Todd Sheaffer, who had been the leader of a New Jersey roots-rock group, From Good Homes. The participants recognized right away that the session should carry over into something more formal; three weeks later, Carbone, Goessling and Sheaffer, along with mandolinist John Skehan, drummer Carey Harmon and bassist Dave Van Dollen, made a demo recording under the name Railroad Earth. The demo was strong enough to be turned into a full-length CD, “The Black Bear Sessions,” and the album was strong enough to turn heads in the acoustic music universe. Railroad Earth’s 10th gig was on the mainstage at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.Railroad Earth has since released four more albums; the last two – 2006’s live set “Elko,” and last year’s “Amen Corner,” were on the Colorado-based SCI Fidelity label. They have become a solid concert draw. Last week they played a three-night run at Boulder’s Fox Theatre; last month, they shared a bill with Colorado’s Yonder Mountain String Band at the Nokia Theatre, a 2,100-seat venue in New York’s Times Square. For Carbone, like all of his bandmates, it has been by far the most successful band he has been in. Still, he sees it as a long journey at moderate speed, rather than an express ride.”We got out of the gate fast. We had a fast acceleration,” Carbone said from his home in Shawnee on Delaware, in east-central Pennsylvania, just over the Delaware River from New Jersey. “We’re moving uphill, but it’s been a slow incline. But I’ll take the incline.”Membership in Railroad Earth has opened doors, both in associations and in musical style. In 2005, Carbone played a series of shows as part of Phil Lesh & Friends. Carbone had been a bit of a Grateful Dead fan in the early ’70s, but jumped off that bus in search of more technically demanding music.”The thing I had a hard time developing a love for the band – they didn’t sing and play all that well,” he said. “When I fell off the Dead bandwagon, I was listening to some intense shit, stuff you really had to know how to play – Mahavishnu, Jean-Luc Ponty.” But the gigs with former Dead bassist Lesh gave him a new appreciation: “I fully understand the attraction now.”At a festival in Oregon a few years ago, Carbone fell in with members of String Cheese Incident and New Monsoon. They cooked up what Carbone now calls a “cockamamie idea” – to write a bunch of songs together and make an album. In the moment of inspiration, it might not have occurred to them that Carbone lived on the East Coast, String Cheese was based in Colorado, and New Monsoon in northern California. “It was more logistically complicated than we realized,” Carbone said. But over three years, the fivesome managed to squeeze in 15 days together, operating under the rule that no one was allowed to bring a finished song to the table, that all the music had to be a collaborative effort. The group, under the name The Contribution, is scheduled to record its 10-song album in early 2010. Carbone said the songs are inspired by the Beatles, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and bluegrass, with “all the songs proudly wearing their influences.”Another connection Carbone has made on the festival trail is with Vince Herman. Carbone has played dates here and there with Herman’s post-Leftover Salmon band, Great American Taxi, for several years. Carbone calls the group “a classic country-rock honky tonk band,” and commends it for having a diversity of songwriters who come from differing backgrounds. He likens “Cold Lonely Town,” written by keyboardist Chad Staehly, to the Beatles “A Day in the Life,” while he calls Herman “a singularity. There’s nobody like Vince.”With Railroad Earth, Great American Taxi, and the Shock & Awe Mountain Boys, an all-acoustic, drum-less band featuring members of Railroad Earth, Carbone has picked up, somewhat late in life, a reputation as a bluegrass-style fiddler. But he says he still sees more music over the horizon. He’d like to go back to his beginnings, and start composing and recording classical violin music.”I’m always learning something new,” Carbone said. “Every time I play I gain more knowledge.”email@example.com
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