For bands that thrive in the live setting and make their mark by improvisation, the inevitable double-disc live album often serves as a demarcation point—a statement of summation that collects the group’s best songs performed at their best. For Railroad Earth, that album was 2006’s Elko.
True to tradition, it was a double disc album and it culled the best of their output to date. It featured improvisatory workouts of concert staples like “Seven Story Mountain” and “Like A Buddha” and a few new-at-the-time tunes, including the title track. It was a triumph that helped to cement the band’s legacy as a live act. Since then the band has toured incessantly—playing festivals and writing songs, incorporating those songs into their considerable live repertoire.
Last year, they went into the studio to cut an album made up of these new tunes. But the results fell short of their expectations and they scrapped it. “It was a really fun attempt,” says guitarist/vocalist Todd Sheaffer. “It is cool for what it is, but listening back a little bit later we thought it really could be better. We hadn’t put out a studio album in a while so we thought we’d just sit on it and get back to it when we can.”
After that aborted attempt, Railroad Earth gathered in Sheaffer's 18th century rural New Jersey farmhouse to finally record their first studio album in four years. It’s fitting that in starting a new chapter for the band they returned to the very place they first became a band. It was here at Sheaffer's spread that they sowed the seed for their first album, The Black Bear Sessions, named for the song “Black Bear” but also for the bear who appeared from the woods outside Sheaffer's home. “Over the years there have been several families of black bear that live out there,” he says. “It’s amazing. When the band first got together, one of the first songs we were working on was called “Black Bear.” We sat out in the field and started rehearsing the song and arranging it, and right on cue as we were playing it, a big ‘ol bear came lumbering out of the woods and into the field.”
The pastoral landscape has also provided the inspiration for many other RRE songs—“Mourning Flies” and “Storms” from 2004’s The Good Life among them. But the inspiration behind the songs of Amen Corner has less to do with this setting per se than it does with recent events in the lives of members of RRE. During the time since the last studio album, The Good Life, was released, three of the members of RRE have become parents, including Sheaffer. It’s a life development that is not left unaddressed in the songs of Amen Corner.
“Little Bit of You” is a parental prayer; “Right In Tune” an ode to familial bliss and “Down That Road” reflects refocused priorities. On Amen Corner, even the barnburner “Bringing My Baby Back Home” takes on a literal meaning, with Sheaffer extolling “goodbye doctor and goodbye nurse, I’m bringing my baby back home!”
View "Right In Tune" Here:
It may be part of the reason why they decided to start from scratch—writing and recording near all of the album (only two songs, “Loving You” and “Crossing The Gap” are holdovers from the previous session) in the span of just three weeks. But it’s not the only reason.
Sheaffer, who is also the band’s principal songwriter, says he wanted to write and record the album in a quick burst. “That kind of album lends to more of a coherent whole rather than pulling things from here and there for a collection of songs,” he explains. “I was going for more of a moment we could capture. I like that kind of approach: ‘Let’s get together and make an album of where we are right now.’ I think something happens when you’re capturing the moment with a song when it’s brand new.”
The album title comes from a lyric in the lead-off track, “Been Down This Road.” Though the phrase is perhaps best known as a reference to the Augusta National Golf Course, home of the Masters tournament, it’s not a golf reference. It was coined as a sports term by a Sports Illustrated writer in 1958 when there were some controversial rule changes during play. But it goes back further. The sportswriter likely got the term from an old jazz tune, “Shouting At Amen Corner” that purportedly referred to a location in New York City where bibles were published and street preachers congregated. Sheaffer says it goes back further still—in rural protestant churches it refers to the corner of the church where the congregation would shout “Amen!” to the preacher. It may even have roots in Victorian England.
But, according to Sheaffer, none of that was specifically in mind when he wrote the lyrics. Rather, the phrase bubbled up from his subconscious. “I kind of just sing and whatever comes out, I just take” he says. “I don’t question it. If it sounds good to me and feels right, it feels like the right sound and lyric and flow, I keep it. I’m not sure I could put my finger on exactly what it means to me and in the song. I have some ideas, but I wouldn’t want to pinpoint it too precisely because it would kind of ruin it.”
The songs of Amen Corner are the latest in a line of what can now be called classic Railroad Earth tunes. Though the band is often pigeonholed as a bluegrass or jamgrass band, that characterization mostly comes from their instrumentation—acoustic guitars, mandolin, fiddle, dobro and other stringed acoustic instruments. But RRE also employs a full drum kit and saxophones; they are an acoustic rock band, their sound more akin to Workingman’s Dead-era Grateful Dead than Bill Monroe. They can hoedown with the best of them, but their carefully crafted songs draw from a wide palette of rock influences.
Songwriting is a strong suit, but Railroad Earth is known for live improvisations. And there are tunes on Amen Corner that are begging for exploration. “There are different types of songs in the Railroad Earth catalog and also in my own personal catalog,” says Sheaffer. “Some of them I’ve written with the intention of them being a good live jam vehicle, with the notion in mind that our shows could use a moment like this, and then put my head to writing a song that will allow that to happen. But with the making of an album and writing songs in general I just try to stay true to the song and let it be what it wants to be rather than force it into some kind of idea. Generally if I have a song that you think it’s going to be one thing, it ends up being something else. Songs tend to be what they want to be.”
One of the ones that is likely to open up and expand is “The Forecast,” a wide-open vehicle that begins with an entrancing intro buoyed by delicate interplay between Tim Carbonne’s fiddle and John Skehan’s mandolin before moving into a breezy mid-tempo meditation and finally ending, sort of, on an open-ended and ominous drift that shows promise of exploration once the band applies it to the live setting. It the kind of tune that may well end up as a 17 minute showcase on the next double live disc.
Along with Amen Corner’s June release date, the band will release a limited-edition DVD of the recording sessions. Longtime friend Dave Manzo filmed the band during the recording of the album. “It’s a guy we’re very comfortable with and familiar with. It’s not a stranger so that helps a lot” says Sheaffer.
Many of the videos can be seen at the website for the album, www.railroadearth.com/amencorner.[ "Right In Tune" can be seen here.]
In addition to hosting videos on the website for the album, the album website also serves as the launching pad for a new non-profit organization. Named for the song on the album, The Forecast will seek to raise environmental awareness.
“Anything that anyone can do to raise awareness in anyway seems to us very important,” says Sheaffer. “With The Forecast people can find out about certain groups and certain environmental issues. We’re hoping to tie it in with our tour dates, so that maybe when people are cruising around with the band, it makes them a little more aware of local issues in the places that we’re going. And with specifically the places we’re traveling to, to give you more of a sense of where you are and what’s going on there. If you could pick something for the band that we all agree on that’s an important issue, the environmental issue would be that. The song “The Forecast,” has a quasi-message to it if you think about it a lot. It’s not in your face, but we figured we might be able to tie it in with that song and get this started. Who knows? Maybe this can blossom into something worthwhile.”
With new life and renewed purpose, Railroad Earth is indeed in full bloom and that's both worthwhile and praiseworthy. Can I get an "Amen?"