Railroad Earth band members talk about their songs like some people speak of their family pets. Each song has its own personality, needs and likes. And each gets equal love.
"We don't play them live until the record comes out, and then they move out and beyond the album," says mandolinist John Skehan of the rock/bluegrass/jam band's approach. "Seeing how they fit and work within a setlist is an adventure in itself. You play all the new tunes and work them out, let them grow and take on their own life."
Railroad Earth's latest recording, a self-titled collection, was released in October. This time around, the New Jersey-based band worked with Matisyahu producer Angelo Montrone, recording nine tunes that were nearly all penned by folksy frontman Todd Sheaffer. In the song "Black Elk Speaks," Sheaffer sings direct quotes from the 1932 book about the Sioux medicine man, then launches into a spontaneous guitar solo that's one of the only improvisational moments on the record. While live performances highlight the group's improvisational skills, Railroad Earth held back on the studio jamming in its current release.
"There aren't too many songs other than 'Black Elk' that really want to open up and go for a ride," Skehan admits. "The exception being the instrumental, 'Spring-Heeled Jack,' one track that was just a collective improvisation."
In fact, 'Spring-Heeled Jack' finds the band chugging through 11 minutes of improvisational bluegrass that shifts rhythmically between rock drumming and country backbeats before building to an instrumental climax. The song recalls the jam-band moments on early albums like Seven Story Mountain and Warhead Boogie.
Railroad Earth played its latest creations at a Thanksgiving concert in Strasburg, Penn., where random audience members were given camcorders to document their live debut. Like the Grateful Dead before them, the group built its reputation as a popular touring act by encouraging its audiences to record and share their performances with fans around the world.
"Taping is a big help in allowing people to feel like they have a more participatory role in things," says Skehan. "I think that's an important part of live music. The fans we have are people who make live music a big part of their lives. They're people who plan their lifestyle around festivals and live music. Taping lends itself to everyone feeling like they're a part of something bigger."
It's easy to lose count of all the instruments played by the members of Railroad Earth during their live shows. Andy Goessling plays up to 10 instruments a night, alternating between alto and tenor saxophones, pennywhistles, electric guitars, banjo and lap steel, to name just a few. Tim Carbone picks up electric guitar and fiddle for different numbers. Sheaffer is the anomaly during live performances, spending the whole show singing and playing acoustic guitar.
While the band will celebrate its 10-year anniversary next month, its roots are still firmly planted in Stillwater, a farming community in New Jersey. In addition to spawning Railroad Earth, the state can boast its own, often unheralded, place in string band history.
"Bluegrass is everywhere. We're certainly not a real bluegrass band. We have bluegrass instrumentation, but having amplification and drums puts us in the rock category," says Skehan. "David Grisman is a New Jersey native. Jersey's Tony Trischka taught Bela Fleck banjo. Hot Tuna's Barry Mitterhoff, he's from here. It's everywhere."