BY CHRIS JOHNSON
A friend of mine who has extensive knowledge of progressivemusic periodically calls to recommend seeing particular bands when they comethrough Iowa. About two years ago, he suggested that we see a band comingthrough Iowa City called Railroad Earth. Unfortunately for him, he couldn’tmake it, and for the next six months, he had to listen to me tell him howgood the band was.
The next time Railroad Earth came through Iowa, my friend agreed to go. About15 minutes into their first set, I noticed his jaw drop. A half-hour in, heturned to me and said, “This is the best band I have ever heard.”
That reaction is pretty much standard at Railroad Earth concerts. Across the board, the six members of Railroad Earth are all veteran, top-echelonmusicians capable of playing with the world’s best players in a widespectrum of genres. While violinist Tim Carbone may be considered the featuredsoloist, the group is so well balanced that no one musician dominates thesound. These guys listen to each other, move in and out of the gap, and playtogether remarkably well.
Despite the recent renaissance of top-shelf musicians playing on a similarlevel, rarely do we see the melding of a group of great musicians with a songwriterfor the ages. The early Grateful Dead with Garcia-Hunter and The Band withRobbie Robertson were able to do this, but not many others.
Which brings us to Todd Sheaffer, lead singer, guitarist, and primary songwriterfor Railroad Earth. Todd comes across as a humble, unassuming guy, but thequality and strength of his songs are arguably not far behind the likes ofMorrison, Dylan, Springsteen, and Fogerty. It is not just the touching experiencesand emotions that grow on you, but the profound spiritual energy that comesthrough the words and music. This is cutting-edge material in the truest sense,which often takes a long time to find widespread acceptance. But the worldis changing quickly and this music is helping to change it in a positive direction.
The other significant element, and possibly the most important, that makesRailroad Earth such a remarkable band is their silence. It may seem like acontradiction to the high energy and sheer exuberance of this band, but theirsilence is profound in every way. These guys appear to be completely settledand balanced with each other, the music, and the audience, resulting in apowerful, esoteric dynamic of silence and energy. They even took their namefrom a Kerouac poem (“October in the Railroad Earth”), addingto the indigenous mystical feeling they invoke.
The five-year history began informally and innocently enough with Todd Sheaffer,Tim Carbone, John Skehan, and Andy Goessling hanging out together with theiracoustic instruments, “just getting together and doing some pickingand playing,” according to Todd.
“All of us had been playing in various projects for years,” addsTim, “and many of us had played together in different projects. Butthis time, we found ourselves all available at the same time.” Afterproducing and distributing a five-song demo, they were unexpectedly bookedat the prestigious Telluride Bluegrass Festival without having played onelive show. Nothing like starting out on the high wire without a net, but somehowit has worked out pretty well.
Four years, four CDs, and hundreds of shows later, Railroad Earth has anintense, loyal, and rapidly growing following. They regularly play most ofthe big festivals and have fans who will drive anywhere to see them.
What type of music do they play? Apparently, the guys are not too concernedwith being classified. The bluegrass instrumentation and influences aresignificant, but they use drums and amplifiers, too. They move in andout of extended jams that will put you on the moon, but they are not ajam band. So what is it? It’s Railroad Earth music.