Amanda Shires and her husband Jason Isbell have certainly been on a tear as of late, both releasing critically acclaimed albums that are deservedly bringing their talents to a wider audience. Isbell has already been featured here for “The Day John Henry Died,” one of my all-time favorites, and months after its release, I still cannot stop listening to his new album Southeastern. In light of the release of her excellent new album last week, it seemed worthwhile to revisit a great train song from Shires’s last LP, Carrying Lightning.
For Mississippi blues artists, departing trains formed the conduit of the Great Migration, and the trains that appeared in blues songs often symbolized escape from the repression of the Jim Crow South and the hope of a better life up north. Of course, there is a darker side to a leaving train, as this blog has featured a whole host of southbound trains carrying away lovers and causing romantic destruction. “When You Need a Train it Never Comes,” is a sly inversion of this usual train song trope. In this case the narrator waits desperately for a train that never comes, and the absence of a train speaks to the trapped situation the narrator has found herself in. Beyond playing with this classic theme, the song is a veritable railyard full of train imagery – from Shires dreaming she “was tied to a train track, twisting in the sun” to the noise of the train itself, which distracts from the screaming thoughts and haunting voices of a relationship gone south, and to the reference of the historic transcontinental Union Pacific.
Every Americana artist worth their salt needs a good train song, and its safe to say Shires nails her rendition of the genre. Cleverly written songs like this, which invokes a long lineage of train songs and railroad imagery, are why Shires has been rising to the top of the Americana heap. Though her new record Down Came the Doves is sadly bereft of train songs, it continues in this tradition of smart and powerful songwriting so check it out if you’re into this kind of stuff.
Yesterday’s post on Doc Watson and The Train That Carried My Girl From Town overlooked one crucial fact about the song – that it continues to be covered today. So as a bonus post on this song, which has been in my head all day, here are two great covers by excellent artists. The first comes from the inimitable Justin Townes Earle. Earle is an expert at making old country relevant to new audiences so this cover is certainly in his wheelhouse.
The second is a rousing and hard-driving rendition from William Elliot Whitmore, and serves as a reminder that I really need to listen to more of his stuff.
Enjoy these modern day covers of a classic train song!
Lonesome Whistles is now coming at you from a brand new location up in the North Carolina mountains, so in honor of this change in scenery, today’s song comes from local bluegrass legend the late Doc Watson. Enshrined in a statue in downtown Boone (right up the road from me now), Watson has a lengthy discography chock full of train songs. Continuing in the common theme of trains-as-relationship-destroyers, “The Train That Carried My Girl From Town” has a plot about as complex as the title – a train is carrying away the narrator’s girl, and he is upset about it. From the lyrics its a little unclear if the woman left on her own or if some rounder stole her off, but whatever the cause of the singer’s plight, the song features a threat to shoot the rounder, and a grim and rather explicit wish that the train would wreck and break the engineer’s neck. The poor engineers never seem to do well in these old train songs, but at least this song only wishes for a wreck, instead of reporting the tragic results of one.
The song was originally made famous by Frank Hutchinson, a West Virginia born musician who owes his musical origins partly to listening to a blues playing black railroad worker while growing up. He also was part of the earliest 1920s generation of country singers that burst into the national consciousness with the 1927 Bristol recording sessions. Of course, Hutchinson, and many of the other musicians involved in these session were often not the sole authors of these songs. According to Norm Cohen’s Long Steel Rail, the go-to source on old train songs, Hutchinson learned the song from a black musician named Bill Hunt, who sang to entertain miners in West Virginia’s coal mines. Hutchinson recorded the song in 1926 in New York City, along with a few other train songs, and the song was later adopted by Doc Watson, who made a career out of bringing old folk songs like this to life for new audiences. The original version is below, though I personally prefer the speedy picking and the more upbeat feel of Doc Watson’s rendition.