The tune is sounding right Railroad Earth pulls into Aspen | AspenTimes.com
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The tune is sounding right Railroad Earth pulls into Aspen

Stewart Oksenhorn

New Jersey doesn’t conjure up images of mandolins, high and lonesome harmonies, and bluegrass pickin’ parties. A generation ago, Bruce Springsteen forged New Jersey’s musical identity with his back-alley rock ‘n’ roll. A decade ago, the Fugees and Lauryn Hill updated the sounds of Jersey for the hip-hop era. But when people think New Jersey, the pictures are of urban landscapes, shore towns, shopping malls and the tangle of highways that connect them. Rarely would an outsider, at the mention of New Jersey, think of the northwest corner of the state. The surprisingly rural region gives at least a kernel of truth to the nickname the Garden State. It has also given birth to one of New Jersey’s most significant current bands, the all-acoustic Railroad Earth, whose name reflects the sextet’s rustic sound.John Skehan, who had played in a string of bands while growing up in the western New Jersey town of Randolph, had a lull in his band career around the turn of the millennium. “There was this little time there where I had all sorts of things going on,” said the 36-year-old Skehan, while driving with the rest of Railroad Earth from Reno to Salt Lake City. “One night I’d be out playing guitar in an aggressive, original band, then the next night on piano behind a singer doing Sinatra tunes in a restaurant. And I was teaching, mostly piano, in a music store. It was a time I didn’t know what the hell I was doing on any given night.”Perhaps surprisingly, what Skehan did mostly in those days was pick his mandolin. “I was doing whatever anyone wanted. And a lot of people needed mandolin,” said Skehan, whose earlier groups included the old-timey Lost Ramblers.With his fingers on the strings, Skehan hooked up with a circle of like-minded players, including fiddler Tim Carbone, and Andy Goessling, whose repertoire featured guitar, banjo, dobro, mandolin and tin whistle. The trio attended regular picking sessions at the Elk Lodge, just across the Delaware Water Gap, in Stroudsberg, Pa., which led to further acoustic jams at Goessling’s house.

Among the attendees at one of these sessions was Todd Sheaffer. The singer-songwriter-guitarist was from the region, a product of Sparta, N.J. Bluegrass was not specifically on Sheaffer’s mind. He had just finished a stretch as frontman of From Good Homes, a roots-rock band whose existence overlapped with the ’90s. But at the picking parties, the sound was bluegrass, or something close, and Sheaffer offered up his songs for the acoustic treatment.”It wasn’t like I said I want to start a bluegrass band,” said Sheaffer. “The other guys had started Railroad Earth as a bluegrass band, and I joined them somewhere down the line, and we incorporated my songs into the mix.”So the marriage of Sheaffer’s songs and an acoustic setting was not intentional, but it was serendipitous. Sheaffer’s songs, especially those he wrote around the time of joining Railroad Earth, were Whitman-esque in their celebration of American landscapes, industriousness and optimism. Among the songs that eventually appeared on “The Black Bear Sessions,” the band’s 2001 debut, were “Seven Story Mountain,” “Stillwater Getaway” and “Colorado,” all of which seemed to beg for fiddles and banjos.”There’s an organic texture to my song-writing, and the instruments we have available complement the ideas, the melodic approach. It seems the right way to be,” said Sheaffer. “In From Good Homes, I had elements of folk and bluegrass. But it leaned a little more toward the rock side. In this band we’re able to explore the roots of these elements, going back to old-time fiddle tunes, bluegrass. I knew a little about these things. Now I know them a little deeper and a little richer.””A lot of the new material seemed just fit for acoustic instruments, instead of electric guitar and organ,” said Skehan. “There was a breadth to them, songs like ‘Seven Story Mountain.'”A critical influence on both Sheaffer’s writing and the band’s choice of instrumentation is the physical setting in which Railroad Earth makes its music. Northwestern New Jersey is hilly and wooded and even pastoral.”Going back to the first days, working on the first songs Todd wrote, it was us standing outside a 300-year-old barn on a beautiful autumn day,” said Skehan, describing the friend’s spread where the band still writes and rehearses. “It was a great setting, there in Stillwater, N.J., ponds and fields. In great weather, you open up the doors and it’s so rustic. The woodstove burning, coats on.”Railroad Earth – which is rounded out by bassist Johnny Grubb and drummer Carey Harmon – got to find out how those songs and sounds worked together mighty quick. Brian Ross, a friend with connections in the music business (and now Railroad Earth’s manager), told the band that if they produced a demo recording, he’d get it in the hands of the right people. They nailed it. With the demo circulating for just a few weeks, the band landed a spot on the main stage at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival – which would be its 10th public gig – and the demo recordings themselves would be used for “The Black Bear Sessions.””We were surprised by what we were hearing from these very first tracks,” said Skehan. “Some of the first takes were the best. We were doing it for fun, but we thought we caught something there.”

“Head,” the first song from the first album, stretched to a healthy seven minutes; the song “Black Bear” clocked in at more than nine. But that was just a warm-up. Over the five years of its existence, Railroad Earth has evolved from a reasonably tight, song-oriented model to a full-on jam band, albeit an acoustic one whose songs are more accomplished than the jams. On “Elko,” the live, double CD released last week, seven minutes marks the lower end for a track length, as some tunes are extended to 16 minutes.”I don’t think we had a concrete vision from the beginning. We made musical decisions that seemed right and we’ve continued to play how we feel,” said Skehan, explaining the progression. “If things work, we try to stretch it a few inches farther.”That sensibility has earned them a high rung in the jam world. At a fall 2004 show at the Independent, in San Francisco, word got around that Phil Lesh, bassist from the Grateful Dead and leader of the popular Phil & Friends, was in attendance. Lesh came backstage to offer compliments.”We walked away just happy he was there,” said Skehan. “The next surprise came on Monday, when he called me and Tim Carbone to play a few shows with him.”Then the real feather in the cap was, he invited us, the whole band, to play with him at the Mardi Gras shows last year. Talk about things can’t get any better. But he even had us play a few of our songs with him.”Lesh, who sat in with the band at a San Francisco gig last spring, seemed to be onto something about Railroad Earth. The jams might catch the attention of a certain audience. But it is the songs that distinguish the band. Sheaffer has a beautiful way with melody. What’s more, his lyrics have an uplifting effect, while steering clear of shallow sappiness. “Storms,” from the 2004 album “The Good Life,” doesn’t shy from darker tones. But the chorus promises a safe landing: “All these storms I know we’ll weather / All these storms we’ll ride together,” reassures Sheaffer in a voice that is rootsy but, thankfully, never tries to duplicate the high, lonesome bluegrass sound. That theme of overcoming adversity plays out in several other of Sheaffer’s best songs: “Long Way to Go,” “Bread and Water.” Sheaffer also addresses environmental concerns, and honors the virtues of hard work.”We do cover a lot of different moods,” said Sheaffer. “But ultimately, it’s uplifting. It puts a smile on my face. It’s uplifting to play and share music. That happens when we perform. Maybe in a way that’s similar to a gospel-type feeling. You feel some of that.”(Another notable aspect of Sheaffer’s writing is how often he sings sounds instead of words. Two of the band’s three studio albums, and several other songs, open with utterances one wouldn’t find in a dictionary. “I guess sometimes a ‘whoa, whoa’ fits better than a lyric,” explained Sheaffer. “Sometimes you feel like a vocal presence, but you don’t want to say anything. If you’re Robert Plant, you say, ‘baby, baby.’ I can’t get away with ‘baby, baby,’ so I do ‘whoa, whoa.'”)Making sure that the songs don’t get lost in 10 minutes of jamming can take some doing. “We aim to deliver just what the song asks for, and we don’t jam them all out,” said Skehan. “There are a lot of players, a lot of instruments, a lot of influences. So sometimes we have to intentionally rein it in.”At the same time, Railroad Earth offers something different than the usual electric guitar/funky bass/pounding drums form of jamming. There is an opportunity to stake out territory of their own.”When it works, the audience is being affected by it and moved in some way,” said Skehan. “We try to play toward the audience and see how they respond to it, and expose the different musicians to the audience.”For all of their current acoustic focus, all the members of Railroad Earth had rock backgrounds. And though they pay great attention to the song, the singing and the sounds of strings, rocking out wasn’t about to be dropped from their repertoire.”Percussion immediately disqualifies you from the traditional bluegrass camp,” said Skehan. “One thing we decided from the beginning, since we had so many instruments, was to have a sound engineer, Mike Partridge, and he helped us arrive at a place where we could let it be a rock band, let the drums be drums. It’s not playing softly into microphones, with light percussion. I call it amplified acoustic rock.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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