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.