Take Yourself Down There, Get a Cooler Full of Beer and Go Pick:A Conversation with Railroad Earth’s John Skehan
till the time of evening supper in homes of the railroad earth when high in the sky the magic stars ride above the following hotshot freight trainsand I hear far off in the sense of coming night that engine calling our mountains. – October in the Railroad Earth, Jack Kerouac
The train tracks roll on forever, don’t they? Wellwe’ve got many miles to cover so let’s get started. Railroad Earth continues the second half of their first decade in 2006 with the release of their long-awaited double live album, Elko. The band is in peak form on the twelve tracks as sequencing captures a fine document of exuberant performances; a confident stage wide grin imbues the jubilant Elko milieu. These tracks aren’t songs so much as timeless etchings on a wide cinematic canvas with Railroad Earth gaining momentum and laying down a foundation for a strong future in bluegrass-infused jams. Beautifully euphoric hook-laden sketches appear to have been written in some century from long ago but resonate with repeated modern listeninglike most great live bands, the Earth brings it all back home with their own brand of homespun wisdom seared into the soul after countless miles on the weary troubadour road. Jambands.com sits down for a friendly conversation with mandolin player and vocalist, John Skehan, to discuss his musical past, the formation of the band, RRE’s partnership with Phil Lesh, the new live gems, a mandolin as piano, and the future of a road less traveled but open and free.
RR: How did you get started in music?
JS: I started as a lot of kids do playing guitar in seventh or eighth grade because I was mad at my parents. (laughter) I played in punk bands and stuff like thatkind of the after school garage band deal. Through the influence of other musiciansa piano playerstarted to get me more interested in more formal music and I started studying the piano, got hooked on that and decided that that’s what I want to do. I thought if I’m going to really pursue this thing, I’m going to stick with the piano and get into the whole world of classical and jazz and everything else. I kind of gravitated towards that and did that for a long time. Fast forward a few years into school and I spent some time backpacking around Europe and started just playing guitar because I couldn’t carry a piano around with me. I basically went back to playing guitar. (laughs)
RR: How old were you when you backpacked through Europe?
JS: I turned 21 there in what would have been my senior year at school. I decided to run away. I went mostly to Germany but I traveled all around, down through Greece and Italy and, of course, up to Amsterdam and up through Ireland. Some of it was on my own and some of it was with friends. There was another guy that I got to know over there that played guitar and he and I used to sit around playing guitars together in the street and get enough money to get a couple of drinks for the night and pay the port fare to get from island to island down in Greece. Just havin’ a good timethat kind of thing. He was the first guy that put a mandolin in my hands. He had bought one on his travels, really inexpensively like in Hungary or something; I can’t remember. He said, “I can’t figure this thing out. You deal with it.” (laughter)
RR: How difficult was it to learn the mandolin?
JS: Well, it took me a little while and I didn’t really take it that seriously. I kind of tinkered on it then and there and started working on some traditional Irish tunes. I put it down for a year and went back home and resumed being a piano player. A couple of years after that, I found myself back in New Jersey playing with a couple of different bands and singer-songwriters and a lot of duo things where I would play guitar and work the mandolin in as I learned more about it. As I became more interested in it, I started studying with a local guy named Todd Collins. He’s a phenomenal mandolin player and has his Masters in jazz guitar. He’s one of these guys that played mandolin but did everything with it from jazz to bluegrass to whatever. He kind of sat me down and took me to school, basically. He said, “Well, if you’re going to do this, then let’s really learn what it’s all about.”
He also introduced me to a whole lot in the world of bluegrass and string band music that I hadn’t been aware of prior to thatBill Monroe, Jesse McReynolds, and I was already into [David] Grisham because of the Old & In the Way- [Jerry] Garcia connection. He said that there was a whole other world out there and he mentioned a bluegrass festival that was playing that weekend in Pennsylvania. He said, “Take yourself down there, get a cooler full of beer and go pick.” (laughter)
RR: What period of time was this?
JS: The late 1990s. It reminded me of when I first went to see the Grateful Deadhaving this sort of eye-opening realization that there’s an entire subculture centered around this music and people are deadly serious about it. (laughter) Much deeper than just going to a concert. Again, this was just a little tiny bluegrass festival in Wingate, Pennsylvania and I walk in and I see people of all ages camped out with their RVs all decked out and everybody’s playing a banjo, fiddle or mandolin. In addition to the music on stage, there’s music throughout the night and day all throughout the campground. Everybody is there to listen as much as they are to play and jam together and that really got me hooked. I said, “O.K. I get this, now. This is what I want to do.”
RR: Did it make you feel like you tapped into some sort of electrical source?
JS: Absolutely. Yeah. This is really pure musicmusic for the sake of the joy of music.
RR: Live music had a renaissance in the 90s. How much of an impact did the Coen brother’s film, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? have on acoustic live music?
JS: People talk about Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? reviving bluegrass and it did bring it into the eye of the mainstream but I wouldn’t say it necessarily revived bluegrass.
RR: It was the chicken or the egg argument, wasn’t it?
JS: Yeah, like I said about this little festival in Pennsylvania. That had been going on since the early heyday of festivals in the early 60s. People were playing this music everywhere and they are hardcore about it and there were little festivals going on everywhere. Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? kind of brought it into the limelight for the moment but I think it has been just as vibrant as it ever was. It didn’t really change anything.
RR: When did the members of Railroad Earth start to begin working together?
JS: Late 2000, the members that are now Railroad Earth began to work and start to get things together. I had known Tim Carbone, our fiddle player, and Carey Harmon, our drummer, for a long time and the three of us had played in a couple of different groups together backing up some singer-songwriters. Timmy also produces records so he would call me to come in and play piano on sessions. Timmy and Andy [Goessling] had known each other for many years and had played together in a band called the Blue Sparks from Hell.
RR: Any notable sessions that you worked on for Tim?
JS: You know it’s hard to remember. Every now and then, I’d get a call and he’d say, “Hey, what are you doin’ this afternoon? I need piano on a couple of songs.” (laughter) At that time, in northern New Jersey, there was a lot of original music going on and really a kind of nice, incestuous family of musicians that would all work and play together in different things or we’d turn up together as sidemen. “Hey, Timmy, you’re playing tonight? Cool. Alright.” (laughs)
You never knew. We were all kind of intermingling and, of course, Todd Sheaffer, our lead singer and primary songwriter, had a great band called From Good Homes, which was very well known throughout New Jersey. We all knew different guys in From Good Homes. I was playing with Patrick, their drummer, who was kind of breaking out as a singer-songwriter, and Jamie [Coan] and Danno [Myers], who were kind of starting their own little project after From Good Homes had broken up. Everybody was kind of orbiting around one another in sessions or informal get togethers. Initially, myself, Tim, Andy and Todd started to put some songs together and work on some things.
RR: How did those jams go?
JS: This stemmed out of some little bluegrass picking parties that Andy was having at his house. We’d get together and play in Strasburg, Pennsylvania at the Elk’s Lodge. They had a monthly bluegrass jam session. We were kind of informally putting some things together and trying it out there. To supplement that picking activity, Andy began having Sundays where he’d bring a bunch of people over to play. Todd started coming around and as we worked through some bluegrass standards and everything, he would say, “I’ve got this old song. How would this work if we treated it like a bluegrass tune?” Yielded good results and we started to think: “Why don’t we do more of this and shift towards original music and see what we could do with it within the context of a string band?”
RR: The band sound has matured over the last five years. I’ve noticed the development of the harmony vocals, especially live, have really grown quite a bit. That is paramount on the new live album, Elko. How were the tracks chosen?
JS: We started multi-tracking with the intention of somehow, someday making a live record in the fall of 2004. We kind of came home from that tour and said, “Well, we’re not so sure.” We reviewed a little bit, decided that we’d keep on going and continued to track throughout the first tour in the spring of 2005from that as we sifted through, we began to feel that we had some worthwhile material.
I wasn’t intimately involved with the original selection process but the biggest guideline was what stands out as a particular performance? We didn’t have any specific ideas of certain songs that should be on there; which ones came across both as a unique or different performance of a song whether it was because of the improvised section of it or what version represented a song well? You had to kind of choose betweenhopefully, you get great improvisational moments but, also, is the song standing up on its own, as opposed to “wowthat was a really great jam in there but something’s not quite right.”
It’s interesting that you comment on the vocals. If I can rewind for a minute as to how the band kind of fell in together as Tim, Todd, Andy and I were working on some of these songs with another friend of ours that had been on some of these picking sessions from the beginning said, “Hey, I have some connections in the acoustic world. If you guys want to put a demo together, I’ll pass it around and see what happens.” At that point, we felt that we should find a bass player and a drummer. Tim and I had both worked with Carey Harmon on a bunch of different projects and he was a pretty obvious choice because we had a drummer that could sing. Not only could he sing but he could sing tenor to Todd who already has a pretty high voice. (laughter) It was at that point between the vocal capabilities of Todd, Timmy and Careywe really had a sound that these guys could do just about anything with in terms of vocal harmonies. We’re just lucky to have a drummer that is a very sensitive, melodic drummer who could sing and could sing high. It is rare. Who could sing a harmony above Tim? Well, there’s Carey.
RR: I was fortunate to see the Phil Lesh and Friends Mardi Gras show in February 2005 where Railroad Earth played with his band and Umphrey’s McGee opened. That was my first review for Jambands.comexactly 115 articles ago. Great show and a wonderful start to the new year. How did you get involved with Phil Lesh?
JS: In early November 2004, we were playing at the Independent in San Francisco. We had played there maybe once before.
RR: Comparatively speaking, that’s a relatively new San Francisco venue. How do you feel about the acoustics from the stage at the Independent?
JS: I love that room. I’ve always had a good time there. The crewI mean everybody that works there is absolutely fantastic; they are really on top of it and very positive. Soundwise, yeah, it has always worked well for us. I remember we were getting ready for that show [in early November 2004] and San Francisco was always a big deal to us. Shortly before showtime, we were preparing and getting it together and somebody from the club comes back and said, “Hey, can you guys, you know, move your truck and van back a little bit? Phil Lesh is coming down and we want to have a parking space.” (laughter) I thought, “I’m just going to file that away and pretend that I didn’t hear that.” (laughter) You knowwhat do you do with that?
Soyeah, at setbreak, Phil came backstage and was really enthusiastic and really positive about the band. It was just amazing to get to meet him. I was thrilled to be able to shake his hand and finally to have the chance to thank him for all of the great music over all of the years. That just made it a great night. We all walked out feeling very very good. Phil stuck around for the remainder of the show and had a good time. I walked out feeling “wowthat was really cool.” It couldn’t get too much better than that.
But, then, the Monday following, Timmy and I got phone calls from Phil inviting us to join him for a special run of shows he was doing at the Warfield [Theatre in San Francisco] in late December. The experience was just tremendous for Timmy and I. We had a lot of preparation very quickly at the historic Warfield. From that, the great thing was to be invited as a band to come out and play [at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium in February 2005 with Phil and Friends]. We actually played on a side stage earlier on the day a benefit for the Rex Foundation [the benefit group led by the Grateful Dead since the early 1980s]. Phil came out and joined us for a couple of songs. The real thrill and ultimate compliment was that Phil wanted all of us as a band to come up and join his band in the first set to do a sequence of songs that included not only a couple of Grateful Dead classics but two Railroad Earth songs [“The Goat” and “Storms”].
RR: That was fantastic. I need to dig out one of my old whiskey-stained notebooks.
JS: We got some advance notice. We were told that Phil wanted to do “Cumberland Blues” and work our way down and go into “The Goat” and work our way back to “Cumberland Blues” and then he wants to go to another jam and do “Storms” and work our way into “Uncle John’s Band.” (laughter) Againit’s one of those moments where it is so incredible that you can’t believe that it’s happening.
RR: How do you rehearse for something like that?
JS: We all did our homework and worked on the songs. We honestly didn’t know how things were going to go in terms of transitions until we all got together with the band. Phil is a consummate bandleader. He likes to leave certain things open-ended and guide them through in the moment. We had the framework laid out basically and the rest was left to see where Phil wanted to steer the ship.
RR: 40 years down the line and Phil still has that sense of focus.
JS: Oh, yeah. It’s incredible. I was extremely impressed with what he did at the Warfield shows [also documented in the Skehan sidebar interview in the Railroad Earth article in the February/March 2006 issue of Relix. His intention, as he put it, was that it was going to be a drama in three acts. He really did create an arc, a consecutive timeline of music that told a story unfolding over three nightsnot just song selections but a lot of different things from Grateful Dead songs that _I_had forgot existed. Crazy stuff like “What’s Become of the Baby” and “Rosemary”WOWand details like changing the key in certain songs so it would fit harmonically within the context of this arc that he was creating; different tension and when to tension and release throughout the three nights.
RR: Speaking of Railroad Earth’s sense of improvisation. Tomorrow night’s gig, for example, how do you plan that setlist?
JS: A lot of that has yet to be seen. Some things we plan ahead. We’ll sit down and talk about a transition or a way to work a particular section of one song. A lot of the improvisational sections we have in songs are wide open but they have a defined end or goal that we are trying to reach. We know where we’re headed and we’re going to land some place together through passing it around and trading and ending up in a particular melodic idea that’s going to work us back or ending up, you know, we kind of work our way in some songs like “Seven Story Mountain,” towards an old traditional song called “Over the Waterfall.” We know where we’re going, which ultimately gives you more freedom to run around.
RR: The band has specific harmony vocals that have to be hit or else the whole thing is just some sort of out-of-control airplane. You do this improv and you’re able to weave in and out of the choruses and verses. How do you keep that in flight?
JS: It is a lot of listening skills and allowing things to be a conversation. I think there’s a lot of, let’s say, musical respect and trust that somebody can step out with a new idea and know that others will support or follow them on that idea or take it over and steer it in another direction, and somebody else will come back and change the direction, again. We can let somebody solo and just support or the soloist can take a moment to step back and somebody else will comment or quote what he’s done and it becomes very conversational and everybody is listening and allowing things to go where they will. Some of it has just evolved over time. Being on the road and playing night after night and wanting to do something different with each jam.
RR: John, I do notice that sometimes you seem to be off telling your own story on mandolin but it is within the context of the tune. You sound like you are telling a parallel tale that I find to be very interesting. Is that an accurate assessment?
JS: It has taken me a while to figure out how to be the mandolin player in this band because it is a different band. (laughs) I like to think in terms of being the piano player’s right hand. In other words, there are so many instruments and textures within this group that I kind of sit up in the register of what the piano player’s right hand would cover. I try to think of myself as harmonic and melodic support and even when I’m comping behind a soloist in a jam, I’ll try to work through chord voicings that have a melodic movement and shape to them as opposed to just blocking out chords or filling out the harmony. There are so many rich textures between the acoustic guitar and the myriad of instruments that Andy plays. (laughs)
RR: Is that the parallel tale I’m probably hearing?
JS: Yeah, I think so. Againthis comes from my background of playing piano and some of the mandolin playing I did prior to this band. I really only played in one bluegrass band, per se. It was kind of a wacky bluegrass outfit, anyhow. I spent a lot of times playing in duos with other singer-songwriters who played guitar. I would be the treble extension of the guitar playing a lot of balladsnot necessarily driving bluegrass tempos. There is a tremendous amount you could do with the mandolin as a chord melody instrument. AgainI guess I have to use the metaphor of the piano player’s right hand: it can be a melodic fill with a series of chords. Depending on how you voice the chords, they also have a melodic motion to them. You don’t always have to play the same chord that everyone else is playing; sitting up on a higher register, I can superimpose other chords on top of the harmonic structure, an extra degree of melodic tension even though the instrument might not be the melodic focus or the solo.
RR: Well, that’s what is great about the instrumentyou neither upstage or come out of the mix as some sort of unwanted tone.
JS: That’s one of the things that I enjoy about playing the mandolin, itself. It is a wonderful harmonic instrument and it is a great instrument to support a soloist. If Timmy is playing a solo, I can sit right underneath him. I would think of him as the top melody and the piano player’s right hand is sort of reacting and comping the voicing and chords based upon what is going on. This sort of brings us back to a conversational aspect of playing improvisational music.
RR: Stemming back to Andy’s picking sessions, how do you keep your relationships fresh now that you’re in the second half of a decade playing as Railroad Earth?
JS: We get to laugh a lot. A lot of ups and downs on the road and a lot of different personalities, different opinions but I will say there are moments when I’ve sat back and felt that we are really blessed. We probably get to laugh a lot more than some people do. A sense of humor, keeping things fresheverybody brings in different musical elements. Todd is the primary songwriter; I write a lot of the instrumentals; Andy writes tunes; Timmy and I just recently collaborated on a song that we’ve been playing pretty regularly; Timmy does some songwriting, as well. Everybody is pretty much bringing new ideas and new things and we just like to play together. We don’t get that much time in our schedule on the road to hang out and jam recreationally but somebody is always bringing something new, something we can do or we are reminding one another of it.
We are very excited about the Elko release. We’ve had great turnouts on our tour, so farway beyond expectations compared to the last time we went through some of these towns. Hopefully, Elko will reach a lot of people. I think people have been interested in a live record for a while although there is a pretty liberal taping policy. As we get through the time of promoting this record, we’re going to start thinking of another studio record, which is something that we all pretty much like to do and put as much emphasis on as touring. We’ve all been in different sorts of bands and everybody, besides Andy, plays more than one instrument and there is a lot that we can do in the studio as far as stretching what the band can do. It takes a while. Things come in bits and pieces. We haven’t had a long stretch of time just devoted for rehearsing and writing since before we did our last studio record, The Good Life. We had about six weeks in a barn working on new materialmost of which had never been played live. Just a wood stove and some kerosene and we sat down, worked things out, rehearsed and took them into the studio. That material has taken on a new dimension and new life as we played them out live.
_“oh mama, please don’t ask me why
I need my freedom
I need my open sky
through this railroad earth
for whatever it’s worth
gettin’ long & gettin’ by
& you know I miss
every single kiss
as the years go rollin’ by”_ – “Railroad Earth,” Railroad Earth