Railroad Earth’s “Amen Corner”

Disclosure: I just made a record with four members of this band (produced by fiddler Tim Carbone) and I have performed with Railroad Earth several times. But my respect and admiration for the band predates our collaboration.

I listened to Railroad Earth‘s new CD, Amen Corner, several times in a row on a road trip last week, and I’m still listening to it at home; it is a great, great record.

This is what I look for in a band and an album: deeply engaging songs played and sung by musicians who really know how to tell a story.

Live, Railroad Earth shreds and Railroad Earth jams. They do that musical-conversation style of improvisation that we like so much, but it’s always in service of the song. “The jams sort of ‘comment’ on the songs, and give them color,” says Front man Todd Sheaffer on the band’s web site. “Some songs lend themselves to improvisation. They ‘want’ to be approached that way – where we can explore and trade musical ideas and open them up to different territories.”

When they do open up, Sheaffer’s songs are worthy vehicles for jamming. Like so many of our favorite songwriters, he describes a universe very much like ours but also very much a place of its own, giving the listener, and his bandmates, a lot to think about as the musical dialogue ensues.

“Seven Story Mountain,” from the band’s first CD, remains my favorite RRE song to hear live. I remember one from Jamaica in 2006 that took me to that place where 1969 “Dark Stars” go. On another occasion, I got to hear fiddler/percussionist Joe Craven engage the song, and the band, for the first time live on KPFA (a performance that was released on a CD called Live from Berkeley – a fund-raiser for public radio).

There is no weak link in this band instrumentally, but multi-instrumentalist Andy Goessling is my desert island player: if I could only have one musician to work with, I would choose Andy in an instant. The band’s web site lists acoustic guitars, banjo, dobro, mandolin, flute, pennywhistle, saxophones and vocals; on my CD, he played 6-string, 12-string, bass clarinet, clarinet, ukulele, autoharp, banjo, baritone sax, and fingerpicked National steel guitar. Andy plays these instruments not just competently but with authority and inspiration.

I’m still getting to know the songs on Amen Corner. So far, I love “The Forecast” most, and “Waggin’ the Dog” and “Been Down This Road.” “Bringin’ My Baby Back Home” is some kind of instant classic, too. I’m looking forward to developing a relationship with these songs, on the CD and in live performance. Great grooves, great changes, great melodies, great arrangements, great lyrics, great singing, great playing, and as timeless and deeply American as The Band. Amen Corner could be heard coming out of a 1949 panel truck or a red VW microbus or a Mustang convertible; sounded great in my Subaru rolling down 101.

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One Response to “Railroad Earth’s “Amen Corner””

  1. Brenda says:

    It is an amazing CD, Amen Corner. The first time I listened to it I cried.
    Todd Sheaffer is THE songwriter of our time, his wonderful Spirit shines through all of his songs.
    As Jack K. said,,,,,,”Railroad Earth!”
    (meow)

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