In a relatively short period of time, Railroad Earth grew from a talented local group to a respected jam band, headlining at prestigious festivals such as Telluride in Colorado. Combining progressive bluegrass with instrumental dexterity, the band has joined the ranks of Donna the Buffalo, Leftover Salmon, and the String Cheese Incident on the summer festival circuit. Like these bands, Railroad Earth followed in the footsteps of veteran jam band the Grateful Dead, combining folk-styled lyrics with a tendency toward lengthy improvisation in concert. Unlike many of their contemporaries, however, the band has primarily relied on acoustic instruments to add a traditional feel to their songs. "With its mix of bluegrass, folk, Celtic, Rock, jazz and long jams," wrote Bill Reed in the Colorado Springs Gazette, "Railroad Earth can play almost anywhere."
Railroad Earth was formed from the ashes of From Good Homes in the fall of 2000. At the outset, singer Todd Sheaffer joined with Tim Carbone and Andy Goessling for informal bluegrass jams sponsored by the Pocono Bluegrass Society. They continued the sessions at Goessling's house, adding multi-instrumentalist John Skehan to the lineup. Other players came and went. In an interview on the Real Roots Café website, Skehan recalled, "Eventually, the jam sessions boiled down to just a few of us, and having run through every bluegrass standard and fiddle tune we knew, we began working on some of Todd's [Sheaffer] original material." By January of 2001 the informal jams had turned into practices, and the new band completed its lineup by adding bassist Dave Von Dollen and drummer Carey Harmon. The newly formed unit christened itself Railroad Earth, a name borrowed from the Jack Kerouac poem "October in the Railroad Earth."
In February the band entered the studio to cut a five-track demo. Four of the tracks were written by the band and one was borrowed from singer Tom Waits. Railroad Earth recorded the tracks live in the studio with very few overdubs, a daring move for a band that had only been together for a month. Brian Ross agreed to manage the band, and he immediately began sending the demo to a number of high-profile festivals. Skehan told Real Roots Café, "The demo was so well received by everyone who heard it that before we knew what was happening we found ourselves facing a full national tour, including Telluride and High Sierra." Although thrilled by its quick success, the two-month-old band still needed to memorize enough songs to perform a full live show. Skehan remarked, "None of us could believe how quickly things were happening at that point. We all knew [we] were going to have to work even faster to keep up."
At Ross's suggestion, Railroad Earth returned to the studio again in April and recorded five more songs in the same fashion as their first demo. Together with the previous tracks, the songs would become the album The Black Bear Sessions, released just before the band's first appearance at Telluride. Alex Steininger on the Sonic Garden website called The Black Bear Sessions "one of the richest bluegrass albums of the year," and remarked that the band "sounds like a group far older than they are." The band, however, was just getting started. Following a well-received show at Telluride, Sugar Hill Records offered the band a recording contract.
After a stint on the road, Railroad Earth returned to the same studio to cut their second album. Sugar Hill issued Bird in a House in 2002, and the reviews were immediately positive. "Railroad Earth's Bird in a House is one of the more unusual and interesting musical statements I've encountered in a long while," wrote William Michael Smith on the Rockzilla World website. "Their music invites wonderful oxymoronic descriptions. Structured jam band. Modern traditionalists." Reviewers compared the country flavor of the material to the Gram Parsons-era Byrds and the Grateful Dead's Workingman's Dead. Railroad Earth flirted with Celtic on "Lois Ann" and added a touch of gospel on "Peace on Earth," while Sheaffer's optimistic lyrics enhanced the overall vibrancy of the music. "The music is so pleasant and engaging," wrote Smith, "it seems like it's 'just there,' effortless, like something floating naturally in the air, mystical."
In 2004 Railroad Earth released The Good Life, an album that highlighted Sheaffer's songwriting and the band's growing instrumental dexterity. Chris Nickson in All Music Guide wrote, "For their third outing, Railroad Earth stretch the parameters of bluegrass even further than before." They continued to use acoustic instruments, but also developed a more pop-friendly sound. This eclecticism impressed critics but made it difficult to categorize the music. Railroad Earth, however, was perfectly happy to allow its music to grow in multiple directions. Dean Barnett at the Glide Magazine website declared, "With The Good Life, Railroad Earth may have revealed itself as the best acoustic jam band of its generation."
Railroad Earth has also developed a reputation for giving powerful live performances. "Only three years into their touring career," wrote J. Adrian Stanley in the Colorado Springs Gazette, "Railroad Earth already has a cult following addicted to the beefed-up bluegrass they're putting out." The group's live performances have built a deep connection with their fans. "Our audience covers a wide range of ages and musical tastes," Skehan told Real Roots Café. "The collective enthusiasm of all the fans is what keeps us going." With its active fan base, Railroad Earth maintains a busy tour schedule and continues to make yearly appearances at festivals like Telluride and High Sierra. "Ultimately," wrote Roger Deitz in Sing Out!, "Railroad Earth is a progressive bluegrass band with something to say!"
For the Record …
Members include Tim Carbone , vocals, violin; Andy Goessling , banjo, guitar, vocals; Johnny Grubb , bass; Carey Harmon , percussion, vocals; Todd Sheaffer , guitar, lead vocals; John Skehan , mandolin, vocals.
Group formed in January of 2001; completed first recording session in February; performed at Telluride Festival in Colorado, 2001; signed to Sugar Hill Records, 2001; released Bird in a House, 2002; released TheGood Life, 2004.
Addresses: Record company—Sugar Hill, P.O. Box 55300, Durham, NC 27717-5300, phone: (919) 489-6080, website: http://www.sugarhillrecords.com/.
The Black Bear Sessions, BOS Music, 2001.
Bird in a House, Sugar Hill, 2002.
The Good Life, Sugar Hill, 2004.
Gazette (Colorado Springs, CO), September 12, 2003; June 27, 2004.
Sing Out!, Fall 2002.
"From Good Homes to Railroad Earth," Jam Base,http://www.jambase.com/ (August 22, 2004).
"The Good Life: Railroad Earth," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com/ (August 22, 2004).
"Railroad Earth," Real Roots Cafe, http://www.realrootscafe.com/ (August 22, 2004).
"Railroad Earth," Sonic Garden, http://www.sonicgarden.com/ (August 22, 2004).
"Railroad Earth—Bird in a House," Rockzilla World, http://www.rockzilla.net/ (August 22, 2004).
"Railroad Earth—The Good Life," Glide Magazine, http://www.glidemagazine.com/ (August 22, 2004).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
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