Songwriting is the backstage, disreputable cousin of poetry. Audio poetry for the masses, if you will. Its highbrow priesthood (Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, the Gershwins) touched the transcendent. The popular guys (Lennon-McCartney, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Joni Mitchell, et al.) speak to our experience and entertain us. Nowadays, in our time of cultural disintegration, good songwriting is found on the fringes of musical popular culture.
I saw Railroad Earth with friends at the recent River City Roots Festival in Missoula, Montana. The free festival drew roughly ten thousand people, and there were five bluegrass-based bands playing the day-long show, with Railroad Earth (Todd Sheaffer, guitar and lead vocals; Tim Carbone, fiddle; John Skehan, mandolin; Andy Goessling, banjo-multiple instruments; Andrew Altman, bass; Carey Harmon, drums) the headliner.
I have an interest in this group because they hail from the same part of the Northeast that I’m from, the green hills of southeastern New York State and adjacent New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The band’s homebase, Stillwater, Sussex County, New Jersey (like my hometown of Warwick, Orange County, New York) still retains some of its traditional rural charm despite the exurban changes of the last few decades the result of the region’s being only an hour’s driving time from New York City. Tim Carbone describes Railroad Earth as a “country eastern” band (various critical descriptions include “newgrass with jazz and Celtic overtones,” etc. The word “roots” always pops up). There’s an Americana sensibility about the aggregation, especially in the lyrical songwriting of Todd Sheaffer.
The band formed in 2001 from the remnants of the New Jersey roots groups From Good Homes and Blue Sparks from Hell, and it was in the former that Sheaffer honed his songwriting skills. Railroad Earth was soon on the newgrass circuit, their big break being an early appearance at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. They have since toured relentlessly (ticket sales are any band’s bread and butter in the digital age), and are a staple of summertime outdoor festivals and off-season theater venues in large cities and college towns. Their enthusiastic fan-base are called “Hoboes.”
Todd Sheaffer is in a minor way of a long line of those aforementioned second tier songwriters. His productivity is such that Railroad Earth’s repertoire is almost devoid of cover tunes, though a live show might feature a surprise jam on a Grateful Dead song such as “Casey Jones” or “Terrapin Station.” In a dozen years they have filled up six CD recordings with Sheaffer’s work.
For a musician, Sheaffer is bookish. He has a B.A. in English from Columbia University (1986). You Tube videos of the band playing in his home studio show walls lined with books. Indeed, the name Railroad Earth derives from the title of a poem by Jack Kerouac, “October in the Railroad Earth.” Anyway, there’s a literary sensibility present in much of Sheaffer’s work.
Such songs as “Storms” and “The Good Life” extol the pastoral. The influences are as varied as Robert Frost’s poetry and Sheaffer’s own Sussex County roots. In “Storms” there’s “Soft thunder from across the meadow/ Rain buckets on the kitchen floor….” as a man tells his wife, “But all these storms I know we’ll weather/ All these storms we’ll ride together.” “The Good Life” longs for the idyllic rural existence: “Up the Mad River Valley and never looked back/Up an old logging road over an old metal bridge/ Put the backs to the plow and the seeds in the ground/ They got bread in the oven and books on the shelf.”
“Hunting Song” (co-written by Sheaffer) is a coming-of-age tale in which the narrator understands the ethics of the blood sports, while questioning his own participation in its rituals: “Shook a pheasant from a tree/ When I saw that bird come out I knew the time had come for me/ She started movin’ for the clear blue sky/ I aimed quick, let the bullet fly.”
Sheaffer has an interest in the historical and trains (after all, the band is called “Railroad Earth”), and in two tunes it looks west. “The Jupiter and the 119” tells the story of the meeting of the westbound Union Pacific Railroad with the eastbound Central Pacific at Promontory, Utah in 1869: “The Jupiter is gleaming, shining in the sun/ Everybody ready for the great cross country run…./Across the grassed horizon, across the plain/ Across a thousand miles of iron roars the mighty UP train.” “Elko,” a cautionary tale about a railroad teamster, could have been written by Marty Robbins or Merle Haggard: “Pull in from the desert road/ Park your wagon, drop your load and shut ’er down/ Poor boy you’re bound to die…./Grab a whiskey at the bar/Sit down to your deck of cards…./Poor boy you’re bound to cry.”
There are contemplative elements in “Seven Story Mountain” (with apologies to Thomas Merton): “It’s a seven story mountain/ It’s a long, long life we live/ Got to find a light and fill my heart again.” “Been Down This Road” counsels forgiveness: “I wore those shadows that sooner or later drag you down/ Hang around your heart and your mind.” “Bird in a House” is a metaphor for artistic struggle and identity. The bird trapped in the house just wants to: “….sing my own song, that’s all…./ Cried the bird and flew into a wall/ There must be some way out, he cried/ And his desperation echoed down the hall.”
Let’s close with the up-tempo bluegrass piece “Crossing the Gap” (the Delaware Water Gap, that is), though it’s one of the few Railroad Earth songs not penned by Todd Sheaffer. Its composers are his bandmates Tim Carbone and John Skehan: “I’m crossing the gap on my way home/Above my head just sky and stone/ Cross the river from the Jersey side, at the end, of a long, long ride….”/So goodbye morning star, daylight’s come again/ I crossed one hundred rivers, there’s one more just ahead, yeah just ahead.”
I feel right at home. I hope they cross a thousand more.