Railroad Earth chugs into Aspen
September 4, 2009
ASPEN – When a group of New Jersey pickers began gathering in 2001, they were duly impressed by the songs brought in by Todd Sheaffer. Sheaffer wasn’t an unknown quantity; through the ’90s, he had led the respected, rootsy From Good Homes, a band that landed a deal with the RCA label. But getting an inside view of Sheaffer’s songs alerted the players that they had a major talent in their midst.
At those first sessions in New Jersey’s northwestern corner – a place of mountains and small villages that belies the standard image of the state, a location where you can actually envision a bluegrass-type band emerging from – one song stood out. “Seven Story Mountain” was a Sheaffer song about following through on dreams; thematically, it is a country cousin to something that might have been written by the bard of Jersey’s shore region, Bruce Springsteen.
The song was “one of the things that inspired all of us, and definitely myself, as the band found its footing,” said John Skehan, a participant at those gatherings. “I remember listening to ‘Seven Story Mountain’ and feeling amazed by the craftsmanship of Todd’s songwriting.”
Sheaffer’s initial work was only the beginning. As the group – violinist Tim Carbone, banjoist Andy Goessling and bassist Dave Von Dollen, with Skehan on mandolin and Sheaffer on guitar – developed the words and chords that were on the page, Skehan witnessed the formation of a sound, an idea, and a band that would take the name Railroad Earth, lifted from the Kerouac story, “October in the Railroad Earth.”
Skehan expresses further amazement at how Sheaffer’s song “was being enveloped by the sounds we were adding.” Eventually “Seven Story Mountain” would take on a Celtic lilt, courtesy of a rising violin lick contributed by Tim Carbone, and a mix of hope and longing, thanks to how the chords straddled major and minor tones. “I was thinking, This is so remarkable, that this song is so spot-on when a few weeks before it was just a bunch of riffs.”
There is another story to “Seven Story Mountain” aside from Sheaffer’s songwriting prowess and the way the musicians coalesced around the tune to form a band. The song is about possibilities – and even more, about bringing those possibilities to fruition. Sheaffer, as he occasionally does, casts the song in a spiritual dimension, adding power and yearning to the lyric. “Oh lord, to see a light, but fail in strength to follow/ Sometimes it’s hard to let it go,” is the songs opening line. “Seven Story Mountain” also explores the other side – what happens when opportunities are not seized: “Oh lord, to find the words, but keep them in and swallow/ One day the top is gonna blow.”
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Skehan heard the song as the story of Railroad Earth, told before it happened, when it was still in gestation. At the same time, it seemed to capture something about struggle, achievement and what was to be found as they climb the hills in front of them.
“It was like telling the story of what might be ahead of us, being in that great place of not knowing what’s going to happen, but you’re determined to find out,” said Skehan. “At the time, we were on the cusp of something new. There’s sense of renewal and rebirth. It’s a journey.”
• • • •
Eight years into the trip, the promise of “Seven Story Mountain” has been fulfilled, in spades. There have been dips in the road and unexpected blessings. Most significantly, they have kept at it, building and climbing. Railroad Earth – which still features the core group from those first picking parties (bassist Van Dollen has been replaced by Johnny Grubb, and Carey Harmon has been added on drums) – chugs into Aspen for a JAS After Dark show, Sunday, Sept. 6, at Belly Up Aspen.
Railroad Earth experienced a major piece of benevolence right out of the station. After completing a five-song demo recording, dubbed “The Black Bear Sessions,” they got it into the hands of a friend who was convinced the music should be spread around the acoustic and jam worlds. Among the first places the tape landed was at headquarters of Colorado’s Planet Bluegrass. Railroad Earth, without even a completed CD, was invited to a mainstage gig at the 2001 Telluride Bluegrass Festival, one of their first gigs. They also appeared that summer at California’s High Sierra festival.
“That’s when we decided we’d better complete that album,” said the 39-year-old Skehan, who studied classical and jazz piano at Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna University before moving to mandolin while busking through Europe. (He isn’t the only member of Railroad Earth who didn’t come out of a strictly string-band tradition. Goessling and Carbone still play in a side project, the Blue Sparks from Hell, a jump-swing band, with Goessling often on woodwinds.)
“The Black Bear Sessions” was released that same year, with no evidence that it was a rush job. Every one of the album’s 10 songs – from the jammy “Head” to the bluegrass instrumental “Stillwater Getaway” to the reflective “Railroad Earth” – remains in the repertoire.
The band followed with a worthy second album, 2002’s “Bird in the House,” which continued the celebration of the outdoors. The title track, an extension of transcendentalist thinking – “I want to sing my own song, that’s all” is the opening line – became a fan favorite.
Still, success wasn’t quick. “There have been struggles. We took our lumps early on,” said Skehan. “It goes from zero to suck in under three seconds: The vehicles break down, you’re broke. And the next day, it’s a miracle: You get a phone call from Phil Lesh, and he wants to play with you.”
That last piece of divine intervention came in April of 2005. The former Grateful Dead bassist sat in with Railroad Earth at a San Francisco gig, and beyond that night’s superlative music, the struggling band got a monumental boost. “That was one of the first times we were brought into the Dead’s realm,” said Skehan.
The road seems to have gotten considerably easier. This summer, Railroad Earth has pulled into such prominent stages as Telluride Bluegrass, Rothbury, Wakarusa and 10,000 Lakes. The early albums were followed by two more – 2004’s “The Good Life,” and 2008’s “Amen Corner,” released on Boulder’s SCI Fidelity Records – that cemented Sheaffer’s status as a first-rate writer.
Still, Sheaffer continues to write about the struggle to fulfill promise. “Storms” puts it into the context of a relationship; “Long Way to Go” seems to apply to the band. There’s also “Everything Comes Together,” a reminder that sometimes the effort pays off.
“Anything worthwhile continues to be a struggle if it’s going to be vibrant,” said Skehan.