Railroad Earth

There’s a three-letter word that begins with “J” that makes Railroad Earth mandolinist John Skehan scratch his head when it’s applied to his band.

The Allman Brothers Band has always jammed, and jammed prolifically. But I don’t recall ever hearing them called a jam band,” Skehan told Pollstar. “It was just the Allman Brothers and that’s what they did.”

Not that he’s complaining. Railroad Earth just marches to its own fiddle. The six-member ensemble has become a popular mainstay of the summer bluegrass and campout festival circuit, even if Railroad Earth’s music defies easy categorization.

“It comes from what country was long before the Nashville hit parade took over,” Skehan said. “You have to define bluegrass by sliding it slightly toward the jazz side of things. It is the first form of country music that really brought improvisation and American black music – blues – into it which, ultimately, is what Bill Monroe did when he invented the genre.

“He called on his players like members of a jazz quintet and said, ‘Here, you’re going to play breaks. You’re going to play solos. We’re going to improvise.’ There’s that kind of fire to it,” Skehan continued.

“The jam thing? I’ve never been all that bothered by it but it’s something I never really heard until a few years after [Jerry] Garcia left us and the Grateful Dead went away. There were all of these other bands, and many of them existed alongside the Grateful Dead, but people didn’t really know what to call it. For some reason they didn’t need to have a name for it before.”

Photo: Dave Vann

The Grateful Dead namecheck is apt. Fans will recognize a similar fluidity of play with Railroad Earth, which has gained a following among Deadheads.

“That’s certainly evident in our live performances and our records, because we do look for that ‘thing’ that comes out of improvisation and makes it sound like something that was captured in a moment,” Skehan explained. “Improvisation serves and supports a song. We’ll have that ethereal quality that makes you think this is a moment frozen in time.”

In fact, Garcia’s own early background in bluegrass – he played banjo all his life – lends credence to the idea that Railroad Earth doesn’t follow a musical progression begun with Garcia and the Grateful Dead so much as it grew from the same musical taproot.

Hailing from New Jersey, Skehan, singer/songwriter Todd Sheaffer, bassist Johnny Grubb, violinist Tim Carbone, multi-instrumentalist Andy Goessling and drummer Carey Harmon came together as a band in 2001, and gelled with the direction of manager Brian Ross after a chance encounter at New York’s Wetlands Preserve.

Ross worked with Sheaffer, who’d been a member of From Good Homes, a band he represented briefly as an agent in the early ’90s. While searching out musicians for a film project he was working on as a music supervisor, he dropped by the Wetlands to see him – and was enthralled with Sheaffer’s friends, who eventually joined the band, playing downstairs.

“I had also just met Tim, seen him play and he was fabulous,” Ross told Pollstar. “Later, I called Tim up and we went into the studio. I was going to hire another guy, but Tim said, ‘No, I have the perfect guy. Trust me.’

“They were having picking parties in New Jersey and invited people out. I was very impressed with the musicianship of this group of crazy rural New Jersey people. By January 2001, they’d invited two others to join them. They went into a regular studio for literally one day and banged out five tunes for a demo that just floored me,” Ross said.

Photo: C. Taylor Crothers
Tim Carbone, Todd Sheaffer, Carey Harmon, Johnny Grubb, Andy Goessling & John Skehan

The band played a few warmup gigs at New Jersey bars and Elks lodges before finding themselves onstage at the prestigious Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado – its 10th appearance as Railroad Earth.

They soon recorded a studio album, The Black Bear Sessions, followed the next year with Bird in a House and in 2004 by The Good Life. Railroad Earth toured relentlessly in between, developing a loyal fan base and repertoire that resulted in a breakout two-disc live album, Elko, in 2006. The band is now touring behind Amen Corner, recorded in an old house Sheaffer used to live in, giving it a rustic tone.

The Agency Group’s Seth Rappaport was introduced to the band in 2004 by fellow agent Bruce Solar and joined the team. Ross gives Rappaport credit for guiding Railroad Earth’s touring success in the last five years, as he booked them beyond the traditional campouts.

“Telluride, being one of the first gigs they ever played, has had a big role in their development,” Rappaport told Pollstar. “And now, they’re playing all the A-level festivals from Rothbury to Mile High, Bonnaroo and the Austin City Limits Festival.

“Being able to play in front of a lot of people has really served this band well. They win them over every time,” Rappaport said. “Now, they return to Telluride years later, and they’re on the mainstage, headlining after Elvis Costello, which they’ve got to be really proud of.”

Railroad Earth will have another gig it’s likely to be proud of to end its summer when it opens for The Allman Brothers Band at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colo. Skehan probably won’t hear the dreaded “J-word” once.