Taking its name from a Jack Kerouac poem, the bluegrass-rock band
Railroad Earth features three of New Jersey’s most well-respected roots-rock
musicians: vocalist-guitarist-lyricist Todd Sheaffer of the late, great From
Good Homes and fiddler-guitarist Tim Carbone and multi-string and wind player
Andy Goessling, who’ve had a 20-year partnership in Blue Sparks From Hell and
Kings in Disguise. Goessling also plays in a group called Secret Admirers and
Carbone has gigged with bluegrass great Peter Rowan and the late Rick Danko
of The Band.
After a pickin’ party at Goessling’s Northwest New Jersey home, they
recruited mandolinist-guitarist-pianist John Skehan, former Bobby Syvarth
Combo drummer-percussionist Care Harmon and jazz-schooled bassist Dave Von
Dollen to form Railroad Earth. Before the band played its first gig, "The
Black Bear Sessions," a collection of swiftly written new tunes sandwiched by
reinvented covers of From Good Homes’ "Head" and Tom Waits "Cold Water,"
landed them offers from several major roots labels. They opted to put the
jazzy, ethnic disc out on BOS Music, same outfit that released
Sheaffer’s live solo disc, "Dream of Love." Following a flood of high-profile
gigs, including the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado and the High
Sierra Music Festival in California, Railroad Earth recently signed with one
of the bluegrass world’s most esteemed labels Sugar Hill Records. A second
disc will be out early next year.
What follows are two conversations, one that Bob Makin had with Tim Carbone
and one that Brian Ferdman exchanged with Todd Sheaffer. For more information visit www.railroadearth.com.
Tim Carbone and Bob Makin
BM- How’s the High Sierra Festival?
TC- We were the first band to play this year. We’re playing the ‘Play Shop’
this afternoon. It used to be called the Work Shop, but now it’s the Play
Shop. Then we finish with a show on the Americana stage. We’ve never played
any of these festivals before. It’s been an amazing three weeks so far out
here. We drove straight out to Colorado to play the mainstage of the
Telluride. That was an amazing experience. The we headlined the Fox Theater
in Boulder. Again, amazing. Then we played some weird gigs in Monroe, Utah at
the Mystic Hot Springs Camp Grounds. Vendors for the Grateful Dead put
together these campgrounds based around hot springs. There’s multiple iron
tubs that hot water spill into so after a gig, we could take a soak in a big
iron tub and look at like a zillion stars over our heads. That was pretty
*B- You also played the Telluride and the Greyfox Bluegrass Festival in New York
with Peter Rowan and Old & In the Way. How does it feel after all these years
of sweating it out in the Northwest New Jersey music scene to finally be getting
some national exposure?*
T- It feels great. It’s an ‘about time’ kind of thing. It’s the age-old
story, you work your whole life for overnight success. A bunch of things are
happening. I guess the stars are aligned just right because things are
happening right at the right time. It’s amazing so far. It feels great.
*B- The folks in Colorado must have loved your tune ‘Colorado.’ Have you become
friends with the jam-grass bands Blueground Undergrass and Yonder Mountain
String Band out on the road?*
T-We haven’t met those guys yet. We hung out with Acoustic Syndicate and
Tony Furtado Band. We had this amazing jam at Telluride. We also got to play
with Darol Anger, Paul McCandless, Mike Marshall and Michael Kang of The
String Cheese Incident.
*B- Comment on the musical and professional ingredients that have made Railroad
Earth’s success swift and succinct.*
T- It’s been a lot of good luck. It all started with a demo and Todd’s
songs. When you have good songs, they pretty much can’t do too much to take
that away. So it started with this demo that people really seemed to like,
the playing end of it, the performance end of it. It struck a chord. That’s
how we got the Telluride gig. Then we got the interest of a couple of record
labels and promoters started putting us on all these bills, like Jam Grass.
But it all started with a demo and a manager who’s good at talking us up. We
needed that, someone outside the band to stand up and get on the phone and
say, ‘These guys are great.’ It doesn’t have the same impact if you’re on the
phone saying you’re great.
*B- While you have a lot of traditional bluegrass elements, Railroad Earth really
seems to be a bluegrass rock band that incorporates elements of pop, other
traditional forms of American music, like the gospel of ‘Lordy Lordy’ and the
jazz of ‘Black Bear’ and even ethnic strains such as on ‘Seven Story
Mountain,’ which sounds very Indian and the Celtic roots of bluegrass on
‘Chains.’ Comment on how you enjoy mixing things up and how that’s impacted
T-Well as far as the Indian thing goes, I have to take credit or blame for
that. Last year, I spent several weeks in India playing violin in a Buddhist
gospel band called the Dharma Bums at a world festival of music in North
India where we played for the Dalai Lama. I came back from that not only with
my life being changed but my playing being changed as well. It did some good.
I’m a little nervous playing for the traditionalists at the Greyfox.
That’s a pretty traditional festival. But with the traditional audiences
we’ve played for, we’ve gone over really well. I think we have enough
traditional elements and we’re good enough players that anyone familiar with
genre immediately identifies, ‘These guys know what they’re doing. They’re
just taking it in a different direction.’
When it all boils down, it’s like, hey, is it a good song? To me, anyway.
Are you putting it over? We’re all good players and we play well together,
which is important. We play good as a unit that is cohesive, but it all boils
down to how good the songs are how well they’re sung. We frame them well with
music and arrangements. If you have all that going for you, the goal is just
to get it out in front of the people because people are going to like it. Our
manager is top notch and our booking agent is doing a good job. Once we put
out our next record, we’re hoping to have that out on a label that will take
us to another level.
*B- What was it about Tom Waits’ ‘Cold Water’ that made you think it could be
adapted into a good bluegrass tune?*
T- I heard Dolly Parton on her first bluegrass album, ‘The Grass Is Blue’
for Sugarhill, do a killer version of Billy Joel’s ‘Travelin’ Song.’ I
thought, ‘My God, that’s the perfect adaptation of a non-bluegrass song into
the genre.’ At the time, I was listening to heavily to ‘Mule Variations.’
When I heard ‘Cold Water,’ I thought, ‘This song was born to be a bluegrass
song.’ I just heard in my imagination right away. I thought, ‘The changes are
right. The subject matter of the song fits the way Todd writes lyrics. It’s
not outside our whole general vibe.’
*B- What does Railroad Earth mean and how does the same named song apply that
T- Railroad Earth comes from the Jack Kerouac poem ‘October in the Railroad
Earth.’ Brian Ross, our manager, came up with the name for the band. It’s a
relatively esoteric Kerouac poem. It’s on (Rhino’s ‘Beat Generation’) box set
with Steve Allen playing piano. (Kerouac’s) completely drunk, but it’s great.
And the name works perfectly. Todd got a good feeling from the name, but he’d
never heard of the poem. But if you listen to the poem, it’s about the common
man and the earthiness of the salt of the earth.
*B- I understand Railroad Earth came together during a pickin’ party at Andy’s
house. Has the band maintained that sense of playfulness in the midst of the
whirlwind of activity that surrounds you?*
*BM- Are Blues Sparks from Hell and Kings in Disguise still together? Are they now
side projects, given how busy Railroad Earth has been or is Railroad Earth
still the side project?*
T- They still exist. Obviously they’re on the back burner. This has taken
the first priority. I have five songs in the can for a Kings in Disguise
record. Last year, we put a new Blues Sparks from Hell record out. That band
in some form or another still plays. I’m fond of saying that we came off the
road in 1990 and we’re now celebrating 11 highly successful years of never
playing together again. That band some form or another still play. Found of
saying came off road 1990 celebrating 11 highly successful never play
together again. I also sit in with Java, which is a folk-funk band. As a
professional musician, I make my livelihood playing as much as possible. I
willing to play with nearly anybody I feel is worth playing with.
*B- I always hoped From Good Homes would put the Northwest Jersey scene on the
map, but they didn’t. Do you think perhaps Railroad Earth and Swampadelica
T- I would hope so. However, my only feeling is that the Northwest New
Jersey scene really has one venue for professional music and that’s The
Stanhope House. That’s not enough. There needs to be three others fulltime.
Having traveled all over the country and seen successful music scenes, there
needs to be at least two more fulltime music venues for it to be considered a
viable scene. It’s a miracle that as much talent has come out of that area
without more than fulltime venue. ###
Bob Makin has been covering the jam band scene since 1988. Jam bands can send
him info at firstname.lastname@example.org and material to PO Box 6600, Bridgewater, NJ
Todd Sheaffer and Brian Ferdman
BF: From what I gather you guys just returned from a very successful tour. From your perspective, how did that go?
TS: Well, we had a great tour. It was really a lot of fun and musically, I think everything really started to come together. As you know, we’re a brand new band, but I thought we played really well, and it’s really a fun band to tour withthat’s one thing I figured out. (laughs) It’s a great group of guys, and the music’s a lot of fun. We’re kinda growing with it. This was the first extensive road trip, and so we survived a forty-eight hours straight in the van trip.
B: No attempted murders along the way?
T: We actually had a lot of fun. It was a great trip for just the venues we ended up inthe scenery and the festivals were great. We played a lot of mountain towns. For example, we were up on top of Aspen Mountain and we played a show and a place called the Mystic Hot Springs in Monroe, Utah, which was a really unusual and fun, neat spot. And Telluride and then High Sierra were just fantastic. We also played the Fox Theatre in Boulder, so there were a lot of great gigs, great venues. I’m not sure I’ve been on a tour where there was so much scenery as well as a lot of fun playing the music, you know?
B: Well, you mentioned Telluride. I hear that Pastor Mustard compared you guys to New Grass Revival in his introduction.
T: (laughs) I didn’t hear that. We were onstage setting up and that was in the house, but it wasn’t in the stage monitors, so we were busy setting up and we didn’t hear that, so people were telling us that, and that’s pretty neat.
B: So you didn’t have any pressure when you were playing?
T: (laughs) No pressure, right?
B: How about the rest of the weekend after you heard about it?
T: Oh, well you know, it was pretty relaxed. We weren’t really feeling a lot of pressure. We really enjoyed ourselves. It was a pretty mellow scene, you know? Just a real sweet vibe going on.
B: Well, I know that he spoke about the hype surrounding you guys, and frankly, I’ve never heard of any new band that has had such a huge online buzz surrounding their debut, at least not in the jam scene. When I reviewed your Tribeca Blues show in New York, I wrote that the hype caused me to enter the show with a skeptical opinion. Obviously, I was won over by the end. However, the hype has attracted people to your music. What’s your take on the hype? Has it hurt or helped you?
T: Well, you know I’ve been focusing on the music. I’m not really a web surfer. I’m not entirely in tune to the hype (laughs), and when you’re riding around in the van playing music, that’s kind of going on in a whole different realm. So I don’t think it’s hurt or helped the music. I mean the music is what I’m concentrating on and what the band is concentrating on.
B: On this recent tour were people familiar with Railroad Earth’s music before you got there?
T: No, but I think for me it’s a little different because I’m coming from From Good Homes, my former group. Well, it’s pretty much everywhere I go some people are familiar with my stuff.
B: How much of your repertoire in Railroad Earth is specifically taken from From Good Homes?
T: Well, nothing really, (but) we do a couple of songs that are dramatically different in their new arrangements. The song "Head" was a From Good Homes song, but we put it in a bluegrass context in Railroad Earth. But still people who are fans of From Good Homes and my music have maybe checked out Railroad Earth before we get there. So there are always some people out there, but I think a lot of people are finding out about Railroad Earth through the web and word of mouth. You know it’s a strange thing because on the one hand, I definitely want people to come see the band with an open mind and without any pre-conceived ideas. You know, if they come with expectations in mind, they’re not gonna look at (the music) just for what it is.
B: Fair enough. You wanna take a step back for a minute? This band has a really interesting origin, so in your own words, how did you guys come together?
T: Well that’s a long story, but to make it short, it’s a group of guys who have known each other and worked with other guys in various projects. There’s a real nice little music scene here in northwest New Jersey that all the guys in the group have been a part of in various projects, so we knew each other, although we had never been in a group together.
B: What prompted you into uniting for an album? Was it a jam session? How did it come about?
T: You know it all happened very quickly. (laughs) My original involvement came about when Andy Goessling invited me over to his house for a party, which was also an informal bluegrass pickin’ party, where people were just playing traditional bluegrass tunes. And then that kind of evolved with John (Skehan), Andy, and Tim (Carbone). I think those guys originally had a project in mind.
B: And they sort of brought you into it?
T: They brought me into it, and then I wrote a few songs, the first ones being "Railroad Earth" and "Black Bear," which we started playing and liked. We had a lot of fun doing it, and then John knew Dave Von Dollan, the bass player, and he gave Dave a call and he came out. Tim knew Carey (Harmon), the drummer, and Carey came out, and the group kind of evolved from there.
B: How many songs did you guys have down before you sort of suddenly realized, "Holy Shit! We might have something here."
T: Well we really didn’t look at it like, "Oh we have something here." We were just playing and having fun. I think maybe that kind of excitement started with Brian (Ross), who is the manager of the band. Tim and Andy got in touch with Brian. They were working on the music for a movie soundtrack, and so they were in touch with Brian at the time, and Brian was interested in what was going on for this little project, so we sent him some very rough recordings of the songs, and he got very excited about it and sent the demo out to some festivals and I guess you know, it went from there that we got some bookings on some great festivals and decided to finish the record before we went on tour, to continue with the momentum of the writing and the recording that we started with, and now we have the record out, and we’re out playing.
B: So was Brian the catalyst in getting you guys into the studio?
T: No, we had already gone into the studio and recorded five songs. (Brian) was a catalyst for getting it done before we went on tour, that’s for sure. (laughs) We needed a little prod there and some organization.
B: This album, your first album, is essentially a demo, but it sounds a helluva lot better than a demo. How fast did you guys record these songs?
T: We did the initial five songs in about three days. The first five tunes were "Railroad Earth," "Cold Water," "Black Bear," "Stillwater Getaway," and "Head."
B: These songs eventually became the mp3s that enabled people to first find out about you?
T: Yeah, well I’m actually amazed by the way things get around on the Internet. It’s a whole new thing for meseeing that happen. And it’s hard to tell from what extentyou know who found out from that or who found out from word-of-mouth or who found out from what was played, but they were put up on the Internet and people were apparently downloading them a lot. But we were playing some local gigs just right out here in Northwest Jerseyjust kinda getting our act together on unannounced, low-key shows for a couple of months there.
B: Were people taping these performances?
T: God, I hope not! (laughs) No, they were actually, but if you hear one of those (tapes)it was pretty rough. We were just getting started.
B: With so many talented instrumentalists in the band, what sort of role does your guitar play in the mix?
T: When we get into jams, I’m part of the rhythm section. I listen real closely to Dave and Carey, so when the other instrumentalists are taking off, I try to lay-down a solid foundation and keep pumping, keeping it interesting underneath rhythmically, and also chordally and harmonically, (while) listening to the other soloists. When I solo, I’m not really a flatpicker in the traditional style. My tendency is towards melody, and I think my playing is kind of expressive in its approach rather than that of a blazing flatpicker. (laughs) I tend to try to get a lot out of a single note or a few notes.
B: Has any one guitarist influenced this style of yours?
T: Not really. I’ve listened to a lot of things over the years. I used to play lead guitar for a guy named Jack Hardy in a folk setting, and that was really my only stint exclusively as a guitar player. Other than that, I’m usually just playing my songs and singing and soloing, not as a primary soloist but rather here and there, taking the song in a direction as a catalyst to other soloists and a catalyst to the band, changing energy and changing the mood of a jam. That’s what I think I’m best at— leading the band in a direction and letting the real players soar. (laughs)
B: I noticed your guitar has a really interesting tone, and I thought I saw that you ran it through some effects. What is your set-up?
T: Well, my set-up is fairly simple. I just have a seven-band equalizer. It changes the tone a little bit, but I use it more as a dynamic change and volume pedal. I change the volume on it throughout the show. I also use a distortion pedal for certain heavier soloing passages. Sometimes I’ll use that with the EQ, sometimes without. And I have a delay pedal that I actually have on pretty much all of the timejust a little slap-back delay, and also change the setting on that for a little longer effect if I get into a spot where I want a little sustain. And that’s about it. I run it through the house and also through an amp.
B: I think what really stands out on this album is the quality of the songwriting. If you can, describe your writing process.
T: I tend to be one of those writers who (do) it all at once. I write on my guitar, mostly. Although I’ve experimented a little bit on a piano and banged away on a banjo, you don’t wanna hear those songs. (laugh) I play on the guitar, and I sing into a tape recorder, and I sometimes listen back, but usually I just sing and play and try to make sense of what I’m singing and playing, both melodically and lyrically. Usually, with the songs that end up as keepers, something that I sing or play will strike me as "Oh, that’s good. That’s something to explore. That’s something to keep and build on," and then I take it from there.
B: Are you constantly carrying around a tape recorder in case you have a moment of inspiration, or do you say, "Now it’s time to sit down and write a song"?
T: Well, I always carry a little micro cassette recorder around, and my best songs have been moments of inspiration. The best songs I’ve written, you know, (I’ve written) them in a half-hour. I trust songs like that, the ones that flow right out.
B: Do you have a specific song that you would say is your best?
T: No, I don’t. I don’t really look at it that way. They’re all various expressions of things, and I’m not sure that qualifiers like "best" are good for music. I think music is music, and people are expressing themselves, myself included. They’re all valid in some way to me, although some of them continue to be fun to play longer than others. (laughs) Some of them are sturdier than others. Some of them are very fragile, and you play them when you’re in "that" mood; some of them you can beat the hell out of, and they’re still ready to go.
B: I notice that a lot of the songs on the album draw heavily from the bluegrass album, but then there are also tunes like Black Bear, which delve into this psychedelic-jazzy sound that reminds me a little bit of Jefferson Airplane. Are there any bands or albums that have really had the most influence on your songwriting?
T: Well I don’t know if there’s any one album that I could point to as influencing my writing any more than others. I love the way certain songs have a classic sound to them. I’ve always loved Dylan’s stuff. Obviously, there’s some Grateful Dead influence, you know, Robert Hunter. Another real big influence on me was Jack Hardy. He was a folk-singer from New York. I’m real interested in Irish music because a lot of his stuff had a Celtic flavor to it, and I think some of that is in my style of playing.
B: Well since you’re the primary songwriter in the band, do your suggestions ever cause tension? In other words, is Railroad Earth a democracy or is it just Todd’s dictatorship, where you rule with an iron fist?
T: (laughs) No, it’s not like that at all. There’s been actually no tension in the band so far. (laughs) It’s been a great working relationship, and I think we work together really well. Everybody’s ideas have added lots to the songs that I’ve brought to the group. The arrangements have come pretty naturally, and I think to me, that’s what a band ispeople expressing themselves on their own instruments with their ides. It’s not the Todd Sheaffer Band where I come in and say, "Here’s my song. Play it like this!" (laughs) That wouldn’t be a whole lot of fun for me, and it sure wouldn’t be a whole lot of fun for everybody else.
B: Have you had an instance yet where you’ve written a song, and then what one player or another has added on to the arrangement doesn’t jive with your vision?
T: Oh, yeah.
B: How do you handle that?
T: You talk about it, or you listen to it the other way and say, "Oh, now I get it. That makes sense to me." There have also been cases where I’ve tried to understand what someone else is bringing to (the song), which is actually more often the case. When writing with a band in mind, when bringing a song to the band, I’ll bring a song that I think is open enough in its form. I like to bring songs that will be fun for people to add to, play on, jam on, or add their arrangement ideas to.
B: One of my favorite songs on the album is "Chains." I really like it because it has a powerful and serious message dealing with repetitive patterns of negative behavior, but it’s also set to upbeat music. It’s a strange dichotomy that’s really effective. Where did you get the idea for the lyrics, and why did you choose to set it to this music that contrasts heavily with the message?
T: That’s actually a pretty funny story. Well, at least it’s funny to me. I got a DWI in New Jersey, but I was actually sleeping in my car. I came out of New York in the wee hours and pulled over on the side of the road to sleep because I realized that I was losing it and shouldn’t be driving.
B: And you got charged with a DWI for that? Wouldn’t that be an SWI or something like that?
T: I was in the driver’s seat, and the law says that if you are sleeping in the driver’s seat, you still have the intent to drive, but I had to get there somehow, right? Anyway, I was in a thing called the IDRC, which is the Intoxicated Driver Resource Center, a program where they show you movies and stuff. It’s three days long and it’s pretty dull. The best thing for me that came out of it was the people I met and the stories they told. There was actually somebody there that was a fan of From Good Homes, and we spent the weekend talking and bonded. He was telling me a story about his family history. His Dad used to beat the shit out of him, and his Grandfather used to beat the shit out of his Dad. His story was really moving to me at the time because he said, "But it stops here." He had a daughter and didn’t intend to beat the shit out of her, and that’s where the (lyrical) idea started. The third verse questions, "Where does it stop?" And musically, I was just experimenting on the guitar, so that was just a melodic line that I came up with. I don’t find that it’s an interesting contrast. In some way I think the song worksthe music and lyrics fit together. It seems to work for me.
B: How many other original songs do you guys have at this point?
T: It’s changing every day. While we’re riding around in the van, we’re playing around with some more original stuff and also some old-timey fiddle tunes. Andy, Tim, and John are a storehouse of tunes and melodies and Irish music and American roots music, and we’re always playing with that stuff. The repertoire is kind of evolving.
B: I’m assuming that you guys mix up the setlists at your shows. Do you ever deviate from the setlist?
T: Pretty much always. (laughs) We start with a setlist, but it always winds up somewhere else.
B: When you guys wind-up stringing songs together, does that happen spontaneously or is it planned?
T: It happens spontaneously, but some of them are planned on a setlist. We’re really just beginning to explore what we may do show-wise with that kind of approach to a set, you know stringing songs together, segue-ways, etc. It’s something that we want to do more of as we expand as a concert band.
B: Now we come to my favorite part of the jambands.com interview. It’s the part where you’re allowed get all sorts of angry and tell me why you’re not a jamband. So is Railroad Earth a jamband?
T: Calling us a jamband doesn’t make me angry. It’s funny, but I’m not getting all sorts of angry at all. I guess every band likes to think of themselves as unique, and (jamband) is a category, but I’m happy to be on jambands.com. (laughs) I think there’s something about people lumping such a wide (range) of music together, and that makes me think that the description is more of the audience than it is of the music.
B: One last question. I’m not entirely familiar with the bands you guys have previously played in, but would you say that you’ve already reached a level of success with Railroad Earth that has surpassed those bands?
T: Well, that’s another one of those moments where I kind of lean towards that "bigger, better, best" kind of approach to levels of success. I think in the band we have great chemistry, a lot of things we can explore musically, and my tendency is to turn back to the music. It’s kind of an ongoing work-in-progress, so I don’t know if we’re sitting at a level of success. We’re working on our music, which is what I’ve always done in every group I’ve been in. I guess when we’re sitting at "some level" we’ll be able to judge that, but we’re still working.
B: Well, you give me a call when you get to that level.
T: (laughs) Yeah, right!