The Beat poets characterized themselves as non-conformists who rebuffed the increasing materialism and growing automatization of American society in the 1950s. The connotative art of the spoken word guided them to a freer, more spur-of-the-moment lifestyle.
The poetry of Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) reflects the Beat ethos, and Kerouac recited his own verse to the backdrop of music on several albums. The band Railroad Earth borrows its name from his short story “October In the Railroad Earth.”
The six musicians who form the New Jersey-based jam-roots-bluegrass Railroad Earth adhere to the literary novelist-poet’s philosophy of raw honesty obtained through the spontaneity of art. “The only truth is music,” once remarked Kerouac.
“None of us has been able to avoid Jack Kerouac as an influence,” said drummer Carey Harmon. “The name for the idea for the band came from Tim (Carbone) and (Todd) Sheaffer, but we all follow the spirit of Kerouac and his spirit flows in all of our lives, and how we are leading them. That spirit encapsulates a certain outlook and feeling.”
“October In The Railroad Earth” is comprised of Kerouac’s fleeting uninhibited observations of life in San Francisco and his thoughts on restlessness, boredom, love, pursuit, money, achievement, freedom and an impending “commuter frenzy.”
“Nobody knew – or far from cared – who I was all my life, 3,500 miles from birth, all opened up and at last belonged to me in great America,” he wrote.
“As a band there was a bit of a conscious effort for us not to set out and do any particular sound or thing and to be very much in the Jack Kerouac-like stream-of-consciousness, which is the thing that still brings us together. We all came from similar music scenes and we found the time available to get together between bands and projects and we had no plan but to make something. Since the recordings have gone out, we’ve had lots of booking since we started in the early 2000s.”
Similar to the way that Kerouac discovered and cavorted with likeminded iconoclasts, Railroad Earth converged at the right time and place, six lifelong musicians who collectively got off the ground with no concrete plans or deliberate blueprints, but simply an abundance of natural curiosity and wonder.
“The band has really hijacked us into the life that we have settled into,” said Harmon. “Similar to Kerouac, we threw it all into the wild just to see what would happen. … Next thing, we were buying a van and getting a website, and we were out of there. We had no intention of going on the road and then you blink and that was 15 years ago. This was really a second wind for all of us.”
Railroad Earth didn’t internally discuss what variety of music they needed to play; they came together to swap their knowledge and different tastes, unite them, and then let the results of the picking and playing lead the way.
“When we started, we only loosely had the idea of getting together and playing some music,” said songwriter and lead vocalist Sheaffer. “It started that informally. Over a couple of months, we started working on some original songs, as well as playing some covers that we thought would be fun to play.”
“We are fortune enough to have that unconscious thing together,” said Harmon. “We are more like brothers than best buddies. We love and understand each other and sometimes no one talks, but we all just play and get to a place where we are all happy. We are six strong-willed people and the groove comes when we are not thinking, but sitting down and playing. We are better at communication when we aren’t speaking. … ”
Yes, people seem to get it. In fact, Railroad Earth earned a spot in the lineup at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival before they’d even played their first gig. Since then they’ve released five studio albums and one live recording and amassed a supportive traveling fan base. Band members proudly retain a following without pandering to over-the-top promotions or hype or a swirl of rock concert effects boasting slick production values. The real virtues of music – song, sound, spontaneity, and synergy – are on full display.
“We use unique acoustic instrumentation,” said violinist Carbone, “but we’re definitely not a bluegrass or country band. We’re essentially playing rock on acoustic instruments.”
Elation, joy and coexistence describe the splendor of Railroad Earth. While the band has been influenced by many disparate elements of American music, they prefer to draw their own sketch.
Songs take on their own distinct character at Railroad Earth shows, and subtle or even not so subtle twists in their arrangement, style or length should be expected.
“Our M.O. has always been that we can improvise all day long, but we only do it in service to the song,” said mandolin player John Skehan. “There are a lot of songs that, when we play them live, we adhere to the arrangement from the record. And other songs, in the nature and the spirit of the song, everyone knows we can kind of take flight on them I always describe it as an amplified string band with drums.”
In 2016, Railroad Earth re-recorded “Last of The Outlaws” with a full string section at the Castle Inn in Delaware Water Gap, a characterfully craggy hotel situated in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. Built in 1906, the building’s coal-fired electric generator once supplied power for the entire town of Delaware Water Gap.
“Enrico Caruso sang there,” said Carey. “John Phillip Sousa performed there. Timmy (Sheaffer) has a studio there in what used to be the inn and the dining hall and ballroom was available to record. The Poconos are interesting, a lot of people from New York made it there to vacation and retreat and it’s throwback to the days of the cheaper, older resorts. It’s not really post-industrial, but post-vacation, I guess, and there were a lot of interesting people who went out there and stayed, like famous jazz folks.”
Parallel to the qualities embedded in the popularity of the band’s live performances, the record focuses on the spontaneous exploration and development of the song.
“The songs are the focal point,” said Sheaffer. “Anything else just comments on the songs and gives them color. Some songs are more open than others. They want to be approached that way – where we can explore and trade musical ideas and open them up to different territories.”