Thirteen Years Into Its Career, Railroad Earth Is At the Top of Its Game

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Railroad Earth - ERIN MILLS
  • Erin Mills
  • Railroad Earth

Have you ever heard the Paul McCartney story of 'Yesterday,' where his original lyrics were 'Scrambled Eggs'?" asks Todd Sheaffer, having stumbled upon a better way to describe his songwriting process. "If you sing it, it makes sense."

He smiles. "It's kind of the same for me."

Sheaffer, the vocalist and lead guitarist for the band Railroad Earth, takes his time when speaking. He's deliberate with his words and somewhat meditative; it's to everyone's benefit that his mind has space to wander. The songs Railroad Earth crafts are collaborations between all six members of the band, but they're largely drawn out of Sheaffer's sketches, of moments passed and brief recordings captured on his cell phone.

"I sing something that shapes the mouth and flows in a lyrical kind of way," he says of his style. "You're writing lyrics and then discovering the ideas that are in the song as you go."

Railroad Earth's latest album, Last of the Outlaws, is the next phase of the group's particular brand of storytelling. It debuted strong, earning the band the Billboard moniker "heatseekers." After thirteen years, the band's seventh studio album is finally generating some heat. That's the natural result of a large and devout fan base, but it's also a testament to the album: Railroad managed to find the middle ground between what it's known for live and what it's capable of creating in a studio.

Railroad Earth has an archived network of its live shows that's only a few years away from being as comprehensive as Phish.net, and it's got a fanbase that follows the group from coast to coast. Combine that with a penchant for improvisation and long, winding sets, and it makes sense that the group is often defined as a jam band, though it's more of a critical cliché to write that it defies any one genre altogether. When it came to Billboard, the album was classified as folk.

Sheaffer's style of songwriting, and the band's use of classical instrumentation to achieve a modern sound, makes folk the most inclusive descriptor. It captures the "bluegrass band with Celtic influences and improvisation by way of the Grateful Dead" sound just fine, but it also hints at the melodic nature of the music, as well as the down-and-out grit. Railroad Earth is foremost an American band, well-versed in blues and rock & roll, and with the addition of Andrew Altman on bass, can even offer a hint of the late-night womp that draws people to electronic music.

Continue to page two for more.

Last of the Outlaws is, in a way, Railroad's most ambitious unveiling to date: The songs weren't in the live rotation. The band explored new approaches (including a lot more piano courtesy of mandolin virtuoso John Skehan), and of course, there's the 21-minute suite ("All That's Dead May Live Again/Face With a Hole") that destroys the adage that a band who jams can't carry it into the studio.

"It's the first time we've kind of explored that as an album idea," explains Sheaffer, "creating improvisational sections between songs, between set musical pieces." The suite has multiple sections and multiple instrument changes, and it's a testament to the band members' skill that they were able to create it for an album. It feels essential that the studio let in a lot of sunlight.

"The Last of the Outlaws," written with drummer Carey Harmon, was originally "The Last of the Cowboys," but that was never going to work. Then it was "The Last of the Apaches," because Sheaffer was familiar with the story of Geronimo, one of the last Native American holdouts who fought being reined into a reservation, but that seemed overly specific.

"It's written from the perspective of people worried about somebody, and concerned about somebody and missing somebody," Sheaffer explains. "The stories have to come from the inside out, not from the outside in."

His prose seems to be more at home at the land's end, that ethereal space where history meets eternal emotion. His lyrics are part storytelling and always poetic, and on this latest effort, the title track, sparse and slow, epitomizes that.

That image of longing, of nights spent away, of love, of history, of responsibility, and all the weight those feelings carry with them, speak for the entire album. From the upbeat "Chasin' a Rainbow" to "When the Sun Gets in Your Blood," the album never stops looking west. Last of the Outlaws carries with it the tension for those who find solace in the image of the train. A hobo's life, after all, is lived on the open road. 

Railroad Earth 8 p.m. Saturday, January 17. The Pageant, 6161 Delmar Boulevard. $22.50 to $25. 314-726-6161.

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