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Published: 2014/01/14
by Joe Lopergalo

Railroad Earth: The Outlaw Way

I was wondering if you could also tell me a little bit about this: You just played your Horn-o-Plenty Thanksgiving shows, which went over very well. And you performed a full cover of Old and In the Way with Peter Rowan. Where did the idea come from to play a full album; to play that particular album on Thanksgiving?

Well it didn’t come from the idea of playing an album just to play. We had heard that Peter was going to be in the area and possibly be available to do a show. And I think it was John probably, but somebody came up with the idea when we were driving around to do Old and In the Way. We’ve known Peter for years and obviously his efforts and that record in particular have a lot to do with why you and I are even on the phone right now. (laughs) You wouldn’t have a Railroad earth without that record or those guys reinventing bluegrass and extending that whole world of music.

So when you do an album like that – and you’ve done other cover songs in the past, and when you cover bluegrass tunes, a lot of those songs don’t have drum tracks – how do you approach adding percussion and drums to songs like those and albums like Old and In the Way?

That’s a really good question. With what I’m doing with this band, and in particular when you put it on a record or you do a cover like you speak of, I think the make-up of bluegrass has so much percussion in it. If it’s done right and it’s done well, between a banjo and a guitar strum and mandolin chops, you have a drum set in there. To me, you have to be careful to support all of those things but not take away the feel. There’s a feel to this music that wasn’t created by drums, as opposed to rock and roll; as opposed to so much other music that comes from a backbeat and comes from drums and then gets built around it. It’s the exact opposite, to me, with this stuff. You have to try to find your way in the sounds that you choose, and to adapt to the field that a strum is. It’s a slightly different pocket than what a drum can be. And it’s fun; it’s fun to play drums where there was no drums.

The drums are actually pretty prevalent on the new record which I think is great. You have a lot of classic sounding rock and roll songs and even the ones that aren’t rock and roll style – and they’re a little more jammy and a little more country, folk or bluegrass – the drums are right up there and it really adds a lot to that type of sound. And you don’t always get that in bluegrass groups, which I think is why it’s so hard to pin a genre on a band like Railroad Earth. But I think that’s actually an advantage.

I think it can be an advantage. The whole thing came from an unconscious thing; it just came from people just playing together and seeing how it came out. And it’s been our positive and our battle throughout the existence of the band. It’s always been, “What is this? What’s this sound?”

Do you think a theme night will become a staple of the Horn-o-Plenty from now on, now that you’ve done it so successfully?

We would love to and I don’t think we’ve been as excited, post-show, in a long time. It was a gas and a lot of that had to do with Peter because Peter is a hard-to-pin-down character. It was really the singer that he brought with him [Yungchen Lhamo]. She was just this amazing singer that took the whole thing in a different direction. But absolutely, you think about things like “Okay, what are we going to do next with this kind of thing?” But I have no idea where that will go or what would be next.

If you had to pick something personally, to do a full album, what would be next?

Well that’s a good question. It depends if you actually had that person to do it with.

Let’s say no boundaries; let’s say they’re available. What would you do?

I’d probably do a Neil Young record. To bring in somebody like that to work with would be awesome.

On your Facebook page you’ve got a lot of comments from a lot of people requesting The Last Waltz, which this was a big year for and I’m sure The Band is hugely influential on your band, and obviously Levon [Helm] on yourself. You know, they covered a lot of songs like that and added a rock and roll instrumentation to it as well.

That’s a great idea that I wouldn’t have thought of right away, but sure. That’s a pretty easy one to imagine. Andy [Goessling] and Tim [Carbone] used to play with Rick Danko, so there’s a lot of association for them for sure.

Well I’m sure that would go over well, and I think you could pull it off. Now speaking of Andy, let’s actually shift attention to the other Andrew in your band; Andrew Altman. He wrote a song on this new album. Was that a first for the band?

He did. He wrote “The Sun Gets in Your Blood” and it was pretty much done when he came in. I mean we would do things to it and the arrangement’s different, and there’s an instrumental section in the middle that John wrote that he already had as a piece of music, but that’s Andrew’s song which is great. You know, it doesn’t happen too often, and certainly more often than not all the vocal tunes wind up being Todd’s. We have recorded a Tim song before, but for the most part they’re Todd’s.

That’s actually, if not my favorite, one of my favorites on the album. I never would have guessed that it was written by someone other than the primary songwriter because it fits in so well with the others.

That’s the key. It would be great to have everyone singing and writing as long as it fits in as a whole. We know one thing which is when we back up a Todd Schaeffer song, the band really works. (laughs) But as long as it can sit within that context, I think it’s great that anyone can contribute.

Looking ahead, do you have any festival plans this summer? Will you be doing that circuit?

We certainly will, it’s a big part of our whole thing. The specific ones I don’t know yet. I know DelFest, over Memorial Day Weekend; it’s Del McCoury’s Festival which we’ve done every year except for last year so it’s great to be back at that, for sure. I believe we have a Red Rocks date for the beginning of August so we’re going to return there, which is great, so we’re working on building that bill. So it’s just going to be, hopefully, all of our favorites, which would be Wakarusa and Bonnaroo and all those things. And Telluride. Telluride has got a special place in our hearts for sure.

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