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Published: 2001/04/15
by Bob Makin

Todd Sheaffer: From Good Homes to Railroad Earth

Todd Sheaffer, former frontman of RCA recording act From Good Homes, no sooner released his solo debut album, Dream of Love: Live from the Whitney Chapel,’ when he joined the buzzing bluegrass-rock band Railroad Earth. Now he’s got a beautiful problem. Things are happening so fast, he’s got to put a burgeoning solo career a bit on the backburner to accommodate the immediate demand for the band, which features veterans of the Northwest Jersey music scene that spawned From Good Homes.

They include Tim Carbone (violin, acoustic guitar) and Andy Goessling (acoustic guitar, mandolin, banjo, pennywhistle, saxophone), both of The Blue Sparks from Hell, and sought-after session player John Skehan (mandolin, guitar, piano). Rounding out the lineup is drummer-percussionist Carey Harmon and Dave Von Dollen, who plays both upright and electric bass. Their chops will drop jaws attached to the most jaded ears. The bluegrass-based results fuse old-time Appalachian music, Celtic, rock and pop.

But without Sheaffer’s strong songwriting, including the From Good Homes nugget “Head,” they wouldn’t exist, and, therefore, wouldn’t have landed a deal with the Boulder, Colo.-based W.A.R. label before they even played their first gigs: May 3, The Stanhope House, Stanhope, N.J. (with Emma Gibbs Band); May 4, Higher Ground, Winooski, Vt. (with Smokin’ Grass); and May 5 The Wetlands Preserve, New York (again with Emma Gibbs Band). After a debut record is released in June, Railroad Earth will play the Telluride and Greyfox bluegrass festivals and the jam-band friendly All Good, Smile, High Sierra and Berkshire Mountain music festivals.

Given the way he helped lead the tasty jams and righteous grooves of From Good Homes, it’s no surprise that Sheaffer has the energy to play solo gigs April 19, Finnigan’s, Harrisonburg, Va.; April 20, Summit Station, Gaithersburg, Md.; April 21, The Broad Street Grill, Falls Church, Va.; April 26; The Whiskey Bar, Hoboken, N.J., which will feature From Good Homes fiddler-mandolinist Jamie Coan; May 12, Sarah Street Grill, E. Stroudsberg, Pa. He’ll either play rocking acoustic sets, all with percussionist Ed Nowicky, or he’ll recapture the intimate, moody evening heard on “Dove of Light,” which combines such new tunes as the tasty, touching title track, the soul-searching “Where Songs Begin,” the joyous, youthful “Came Up Smilin’,” the wise, weary “When the World Was Young” and the mellow, tongue-in-cheek trip “Spacey Johnny” with From Good Home favorites “Radio On,” “Scudders Lane,” “The Old Man and the Land,” “Black Elk Speaks,” “Head,” “The Giving Tree” and “Raindance.” MTV’s popular “Real World” show has licensed the entire recording for use in upcoming episodes. One of the top three albums I’ve heard through the first third of the year, it makes me proud to have known and written about Sheaffer these twelve long years. His music always has made the hard times a lot easier for the thousands of fans who helped From Good Homes sell out Irving Plaza twelve times, more than any other act.

I spoke with Sheaffer about all that he has going on — including his own indie label, Bag O’ Seeds — and some what of he accomplished during ten years with From Good Homes, with whom he remains good friends. When you’re through reading the following chat, visit www.toddsheaffer.com and www.railroadearth.com.

Man, when it rains it pours but in a good way.

Yeah, it’s like one of my newer songs, ‘Everything Comes Together.’ Things fall into place when they’re meant to fall into place. Things come together when they’re meant to come together. Everything’s happening all at once with the solo record coming out and starting this new band. It’s a lot at once, but it feels right so I’m running with it.

How does what you’re writing with Railroad Earth compare to your new solo tunes and what you did with From Good Homes?

For Railroad Earth, I’m consciously writing for the group. Railroad Earth is a bluegrass-based project. That’s where we start from, so that has to be a focal point for me. My writing for the group is keeping that in mind and involving those players. My solo stuff has just me in mind.

I’m concentrating on the Railroad Earth stuff right now because we’re busy. We’re going to be making a record. We recorded some demos about a month and a half ago. The response was amazing. We’re busy trying to complete the record.

It is a strange balancing act I’m looking at right now. Oddly enough, I’d just begun getting nice press for my solo stuff, and I’m playing real good shows down South. The Washington Post just wrote a nice review. So I’ve got a little momentum going. It’s like you said, when it rains it pours. I didn’t anticipate the response to Railroad Earth. We literally sent the demo out, and two weeks later, we were offered a record deal. It happened awfully fast, and I didn’t expect it.

That’s not surprising given how long and hard From Good Homes had to work.

The response to the demo has been fantastic. It’s striking some ears who say it’s refreshing and different for the bluegrass genre. From Good Homes started from scratch and were ten years down the road at this point.

I can’t compare Railroad Earth to From Good Homes. They’re two different projects with very different approaches. I’m writing and singing so people might recognize my voice. I’m in both groups, that’s something they have in common.

Tell me about the guys in Railroad Earth and how you got together.

The group started informally. My first involvement was last fall when Andy Goessling was having a party at his house and invited me down. It was just an informal bluegrass get-together. We were doin’ some pickin’, playin’ some bluegrass tunes, having some beers and hanging out. It wasn’t a band that I started. I didn’t round up players and says, ‘Hey, I want to start a new band.’ They invited me to join in the project and it sounded interesting to me. I said, ‘Sure, sounds like fun.’

I’ve known Tim and Andy for years from The Blue Sparks from Hell. I used to watch them all the time at The Stanhope House. Andy’s pretty amazing. He plays anything that you can blow into or anything with strings. I’ve really been enjoying working with him a lot. He’s got a lot of great arrangement ideas and he’s a great player. He plays guitar, mandolin, banjo, dobro, all kinds of things. Carey is a friends of Tim’s. I didn’t really know Carey all that well. I’m just getting to know him.

I’m not sure what to call what we’re doing. We’re writing with bluegrass in mind, but we’re also writing with a band in mind and we do have drums. It’s not a rock band. It’s not a rock show we’re putting together.

I think it’s a very natural progression for me as a writer. I’ve always obviously had a rootsy quality in my writing. The instrumentation is just a little more acoustic on this project. We have a bass player, Dave, who plays standup. He’s a friend of John, who’s a North Jersey musician who plays a lot of different things — piano, guitar — but mandolin is the focus for us.

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