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Published: 2010/10/18
by Brian Robbins

Railroad Earth
Railroad Earth

Woodstock Records

Railroad Earth’s new self-titled album (their sixth release/fifth studio effort) finds them chugging down the same track they’ve been on since 2001’s The Black Bear Sessions, evolving their sound while still managing to sound like themselves. Which is a good thing.

Three new steps of evolution make themselves known with your initial listen to Railroad Earth. First, though the departure of longtime bassist Johnny Grubb left some seriously big and bottom-heavy shoes to fill, Andrew Altman has definitely risen to the occasion. Altman (whose resume includes stints with Blueground Undergrass and The Codetalkers) proves himself to be not only a good man on the upright, but brings a new texture to RRE’s sound with some fine electric bass playing, as well. Combining the rock-steadiness of his predecessor with the adventurousness of, say, Rob Wasserman, Altman has managed to add new color to the band’s foundation in a short period of time.

Another new texture in the instrumental side of things is the presence of a little more electric guitar on Railroad Earth – again, not in a radically different manner, but in a way that adds texture in places you never thought might benefit from it. Don’t be scared, long-time Hoboes: there’s still plenty of the sweet acoustic sound you’ve come to know, love, and expect from RRE (we’ll talk about some of that in a minute), but there are moments on the new album that are all the better for having the extra wallop. For example, the emotion of “Black Elk Speaks” just wouldn’t be the same without the layers of bad-mojo-and-tremolo-soaked guitars (think Creedence’s “Run Through The Jungle” only scarier). Elsewhere, “Long Walk Home” benefits from some tastefully-applied bits of Some Girls-era Stonesiness, while Andy Goessling’s lovely lap steel work on “Lone Croft Farewell” seals the deal on the song’s sad message.

Thirdly, producer Angelo Montrone takes advantage of having a band’s-worth of vocalists, stacking them up and making use of them throughout the album. A prime example is “The Jupiter & The 119”, (a stirring 8-minute crash-course in the history of the Transcontinental Railroad, where the background chorus helps paint the picture like a well-chosen movie cast.

Lead vocalist and guitarist Todd Sheaffer is in fine form throughout Railroad Earth (what is the secret to the spacey tone he gets with his old Martin on some of those leads?), even taking a one-man-show shift on “Day On The Sand”. As mentioned, Altman and drummer Cary Harmon join forces as if they’ve been doing it for a long while. (Catch the slightly Caribbean-flavored passage that starts at the 2:55 mark of “Too Much Information” – acoustic bass/drums heaven!) Meanwhile, the trio of Goessling (give that man anything with strings), mandolinist John Skehan, and fiddler/guitarist Tim Carbone continue to develop their already-scary musical ESP. While the band as a whole excels at formation flying (witness the epic “Spring-Heeled Jack” a live-in-the-studio jam where no single player takes a solo – the instruments simply have conversations) the Carbone/Goessling/Skehan trio operates like one brain with many string plinking/plucking/bowing limbs. Perhaps the sweetest moment on Railroad Earth is the intro to “Jupiter” where Skehan’s mando and Goessling’s gentle banjo improvise a slow dance while Carbone’s fiddle does its best to break your heart. It’s just plain exquisite.

Railroad Earth is sound of a band that continues to mature without getting old.

The train rolls on.


There are 29 comments associated with this post

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Geoff D October 29, 2011, 18:55:57

When I first heard this album I had a bit of a difficult time getting into it. But I think that was because it was a new sound from a band I was oh so familiar with. Once I listened to this album once or twice more, I began to notice the musical depth to each and every song and the fine craftsmanship that went into this album as a whole and with each song individually. It’s not made commercially because commercial artists today don’t always make albums that blend together as a single piece of masterful artwork which is what I feel this album is. I hope after all this time you folks have given it a few more chances because that is when it’s true beauty shows. It is now one of my favorite albums and it has the power to touch your soul.

Uncle Frankie December 17, 2011, 15:47:44

Not here to opine about the music changing , etc…The boys are great live and are quite entertaining. What I want to know is, how DOES Todd get that spacey, Garcia sound from that acoustic. Been teaching myself how to play and would love to get that sound out of my acoustic. Anybody know the deal?

Daryl October 19, 2010, 12:09:11

The album is a gem.. Railroad Earth is a very underrated band that many still need to experience.

Mark F. October 20, 2010, 13:14:43

i simply cannot stop listening to this album!! very insightful review. great job!

SamsaLila October 20, 2010, 14:39:36

What a great review….the review is as great as the album. I would of said the same things, you just said it better. Top notch work, RRE and!

Brian Ross October 20, 2010, 14:45:52

Hey Brian, Very thoughtful and well-written review. You actually helped me to voice a couple of thoughts that hadn’t yet found their way to words for me. The band and I sincerely appreciate the kind words. One thing though: Our record label is actually One Haven Music (, not Woodstock Records. Our of fairness to our label, I thought I should point that out. Thanks!

Healing Waters October 20, 2010, 16:52:54

Great review, indeed! I think that some of these songs have evolved wonderfully. Considering that black elk has been around Mr. sheaffer’s solo stuff a while along with day in the sand, these songs sound wonderful today! I am really digging the Potter’s Field and Lonecroft Farewell. Both of these remind me of stylings that might have come out of Jerry and Robert Hunter in the early ’90’s. These songs are absolutely stunning and beautiful. I always thank you RRE (especially Todd) for putting out so many personal things that have translated into musical brilliance. This train is gonna roll a very long time. Go see them!

realist October 21, 2010, 08:12:52

This is perhaps the weakest release by this group to date. Much prefer Amen Corner and the Good Life over this attempt at breaking into the radio payola market …

Eeh October 21, 2010, 08:19:22

A decent review but too bad the author is off the mark as this is the least appealing release from this group to date. A wonderful band, totally underrated mind you, yet moving in what I feel is the wrong direction. A direction of commercialism where you give up your artistic integrity for money.

Grubb October 21, 2010, 11:53:44

Please. Could it be that they just made the record they felt like making without really taking into consideration what you wanted to hear from them? And that what they felt like making and what you wanted to hear from them weren’t the same thing right now? I love how you people never put your real names on top of your ignorant comments. It feels nice to be able to say that now..

Eeh October 21, 2010, 12:53:02

Abit touchy about one person’s OPINION ? Apply the definition of ignorant to your own comments as well sir.

John October 21, 2010, 13:20:29

Grubb: I love you, but really the CD does sound like nothing but an attempt at commercialism. As a friend, and a RRE fan since 2001!, said after hearing the album: “What happened to Railroad Earth?”

Mary Goodenough October 21, 2010, 14:58:04

fantastic studio album guys! total bonus that i get a completely different experience listening on CD and listening and grooving to it live (of the songs i’ve heard live so far. i enjoy the crisp sound and strong bass on the CD and the aliveness of the concert experience. lone croft farewell, SHJ (very brave to put such a long song on a studio album) and potter’s field are my favorites (andy’s slide makes me want MORE, rivals the best of Kimock and Sless) — the fade at the end of lone croft makes me hope it’ll be a good jam out into something else, todd’s a capella at the end of potter’s is hauntingly beautiful. i do believe this will be an album that is studied in the future, says so much lyrically, musically, socio-politically. “a course’s worth of lessons in there” posted one of my FB friends (who lectures on Beatles, Grateful Dead, Star Wars, Joseph Cambell etc.) at a state university. way to go guys

Smark October 21, 2010, 16:14:30

“rivals the best of Kimock and Sless” , you’re joking right ? I love Andy, but sorry I can’t agree with this, totally subjective and deceiving …

Smark October 21, 2010, 17:21:11

I do agree about Potter’s Field though, best track off the new release of what I’ve been calling a mixed bag of tunes …

Mark F. October 22, 2010, 00:05:17

man – i sure would never want to be a band trying to make it in the jamband world. you guys really are just about the worst. totally unsupportive unless someones spoon-feeding you endless jamming nonsense!
go listen to your endless noodling crap on sirius jam on all day. this album is one of the best things i’ve heard in ages and is full of insightful, beautifully written, played and sung songs. and grubb is a class act for speaking the truth. yay for railroad earth! boo on jamband fans…

Tim October 22, 2010, 11:02:29

Jam band fans? Bluegrass fan! It’s a very good rock/country release. Very good. But it’s not what they did before. Fans of string bands this will be a disappointment. When Miles went fusion, he lost some fans, and gained others. Some of like both versions of Miles. If RRE wants to head electric and stop being a string band, that is their right. Not all of the fans will stick around, and some will be added. Those fans who feel the sound they loved has been thrown aside will act like jilted lovers, you can’t expect less. Still “Jupiter” is the damn best song they’ve every recorded in either version of RRE.

Grubb October 22, 2010, 12:57:13

I guess I’m just a little fuzzy on what is meant by “more commercial”. Black Bear Sessions was a 5 song demo tape, and only became a full length record after they got booked at Telluride because, hey, you gotta have something to sell at Telluride. Bird in a House was blasted out right after that because they got the Sugar Hill deal, and there’s some fairly commercial sounding stuff on there. Etc. I’m also fuzzy as to why that’s a bad thing to actually aim for something “more commercial”, if that is indeed what they were doing. If a band makes a record and nobody buys it, does it make a sound? Moreover, do you know how it feels to spend a year of your life working on something to have it picked apart like this and still not sell? Whatever their intentions were when they made this album, good for them.

Brian Robbins October 22, 2010, 14:55:51

Listen to the Grubb, boys and girls … he knows of what he speaks. Change is scary; so’s mimicking yourself for the sake of playing it safe. Yep – there are sounds on here you wouldn’t have found on Bird, but … where are you at compared to 2002?

Mary Goodenough October 22, 2010, 16:12:04

I see no problem with a “commercial” album — especially for a band that expresses itself so creatively on stage. We all have to eat, right? What’s a real concern now is how the “free” internet culture has made it so hard for artists to support themselves. Dostoevsky hammered out Crime and Punishment because the creditors were breathing down his back and countless other masterpieces exist because the rent had to be paid. And by the way — aren’t all opinions subjective? My subjective opinion is that this review and the new RRE album both strive to constructively contribute to our musical culture. Fo that we can be grateful. (again, a subjective opinion)

Joe Hlavaty October 23, 2010, 15:07:01

All I can say is that since I opened this Cd I have not stopped listening to it. What an amazing recording which touches on so many different sounds. I think the band has created a masterpiece with Jupiter and the 119. Black Elk Speaks is really a different sound for the band but boy does it work. Long Walk Home could easily be a radio hit, and why is that bad? I can’t wait for the Buffalo show and we all know as good as RRE sounds on CD the live version is always a moving experience beyond belief.
Great review of this awesome band. Long may you run RRE!!!

Chris Bowman October 25, 2010, 03:33:22

Excellent review of what I find to be excellent new music…. This band deserves every scrap of success it achieves; they’ve earned it through very hard work. It seems to me that some folks want to keep some of the greatest bands (and not just this one, either….) as their own exclusive (and exclusionary) “life sound track”, and the anonymous internet creates a soap box from which their cries of “commercialism”, or arguments of “my dog is better than your dog” can echo…. Sorry, naysayers, but I simply disagree. Railroad Earth is a GREAT band (comprised of GREAT people, both past and present…. Hi, Johnny Grubb!), and they deserve better than a “just short of really making it” plateau from which to eventually fade from significance. These guys, and this record really are a lengthy leap from anything I’d call “commercial”, either in output or intent…. If their (hopefully growing…. ) success makes some people uncomfortable, that’s unfortunate, and it’s also just too damn bad: RRE isn’t “your private party”.... In the very best sense these guys are modest, understated and unselfish musicians; true songsmiths that ply their craft with all they can muster every single day. They deserve to be heard. They deserve to succeed. I stand behind them, and their music…. old and new, and anyone who knows me…. well…. they know that I, for one, know what I’m talking about.

Kirk Webb November 15, 2010, 18:08:26

This is coming from a fan of the band for around 8 years, a musician, and whose favorite album of all time is “Bird in a house”. I think you can gather some insight into why the new sound of the new album from this link:
Where the CEO of the record company, Michael Caplan, complains that he is not a fan of bluegrass, opera, or gospel. Why did he sign a band with such deep roots in bluegrass and Celtic then? Firstly, I like much of the album but it is going in a direction away from acoustic instruments that I hope will not continue. Black Elk Speaks is an unbelievably great song but what would it have sounded like with the usual lush and beautiful sounds of Tim’s violin, acoustic guitar, a little dobro and John’s mandolin more prominent in the mix? A lot “spookier” and cooler in my opinion. Mike Partidge, please engineer the next album and have the guys in the band be the sole producers next time, please.

Dave from the North Bay November 30, 2010, 22:36:32

The strong opinions on both sides are a testament to RRE’s undeniable talent. My wife and I have followed RRE since 2002 and we loved every minute, from the tiny bars to the famous venues to the crazy late nights. If I had to choose favorite studio albums (which I don’t), I would probably choose Black Bear Sessions and Bird in a House, but only because of the emotional attachment from falling in love with the music around that time. My least favorite would probably be Amen Corner, but even it had some great songs and the band was making strides in the live setting around the time of its release. I am a huge fan of acoustic music and love all things string and I am loving the new album! What appeals to me most is the “new sound.” I do not see it as a departure from the past nor a commitment to a future direction, but instead as another arrow in RRE’s quiver. RRE’s musicianship, the organic sounds (even the electric ones), Todd’s beautiful song writing and the band’s lack of ego and loyalty to the song are what sets RRE apart from the rest and what will gain the band praise long into the future. Friends of mine who were initially doubters are now true believers in the music; and it’s not because of a particular sound, song or album. To the contrary, it’s because RRE, like the greats before them, tapped into something sacred. The new album has it in spades. ~~~Onward and upward RRE!~~~

spoof December 15, 2010, 01:31:23

i bought it, its real good. potter’s field is my favorite track so far. people’s reviews are skewed on this site and in general. anytime a band that starts out with something original and then releases something new people say that it is an attempt to be commercial. be happy for them they are making a living making music and people happy

LesleyBARKER January 6, 2011, 07:51:10

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Jman January 6, 2011, 22:39:42

I love these guys. They really give the Garden State something to be proud of. Here that Bruce and Bon Jovi. I have listened to the new CD about 6-7 times and each time enjoy it more. I have a question that maybe one of you serious fans can answer. Day in the Sand sounds like an incredibly personal song by Todd. Does anyone here have any insight into its meaning?

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