2013 Albums of the Year (Part 1)

In a departure from our usual format, today we are going to recap some of the records we particularly enjoyed this year, many of which contain not a single train song. This makes no claim to be a definitive list – we listen to an assortment of music that in no way is comprehensive or systematic in its approach. This is the first in a series of year-end posts grouped roughly by genre. Today let’s cover some choice selections from the alt.country/americana side of the spectrum.

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Jason Isbell – Southeastern
We’ve been fans of Isbell’s work for a long time – indeed many of our favorite Drive-By Truckers songs (“The Day John Henry Died,” “Decoration Day,” “Outfit,” etc…) were Isbell creations. Southeastern is a powerful step forward for him, full of songs that hit the listener straight in the gut. As a testament to his songwriting skills, he shifts effortlessly between characters as diverse as a friend of a cancer patient, a 19th century brigand, and semi-autobiographical tales dealing with his newfound sobriety.

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Futurebirds – Baba Yaga
Few bands evoke the sense of murkiness of the South, and the weirdness at the margins of this seemingly straight-laced region, than this group out of Athens, Georgia. A proper heir to the southern gothic-laced sounds of early R.E.M., or perhaps an example of what My Morning Jacket would have sounded like if they soldiered on in the vein of their early records, and kept the reverb dial turned up to 11. This one is more of a slow boil, and more of a grower than their impressive first record. So come for the immediately striking atmosphere, and stay for revelations of stunning moments like the second half of “Dig.”

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Mount Moriah – Miracle Temple
Boasting what is probably our favorite album cover of the year, this North Carolina group’s sophomore record builds on the successes of their 2011 self-titled debut. Twisting and turning guitar lines from the mastermind behind one of our favorite metal groups Horseback, merge with melodic bass work, and the compelling vocals of front-woman Heather McIntyre, who first cut her teeth in the punk scene. The flaming barn on the front is a perfect encapsulation of band’s musical and lyrical tension between Old and New Souths. Perhaps this group resonates so strongly with us because the members have walked a similar path of musical growth – from metal/punk/heaviness to rural-inflected americana. Or maybe its just our move – “Swannanoa” in particular has been on repeat since our relocation to the Blue Ridge Mountains.

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Austin Lucas – Stay Reckless
Yet another punk-Americana hybrid, Lucas has made a smooth shift from hardcore to acoustic bluegrass, and on the new record he turns up the electric guitars (with the help of backing band Glossary). Great stuff and a nice step forward in Lucas’s sound.

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Doc Feldman & the LD50s – Sundowning at the Station
The buzz on this one by some bloggers I follow, was so heavy I had to check it out, and the hype is well-deserved. Utter bleakness translated into acoustic musical misery. Its not for the faint of heart, but its hard to find a better soundtrack to

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Divided & United: Songs of the Civil War
We realize that as a music-obsessed 19th century historian we fall squarely within the target demographic for this one. But the care that went into curating this collection and the skillful execution should give this resonance outside the historical profession. Its a diverse set of songs, encompassing multiple viewpoints of the war, and performed by a variety of artists, including some real heavy hitters. Put this on and spend an hour or two in the 1860s. Sam Amidon’s “Wildwood Flower” and Old Crow Medicine Show’s rousing rendition of “Marching through Georgia” are immediate standouts, but the whole collection is even more powerful in one full run-through.

Steve Earle & the Del McCoury Band – Texas Eagle

Steve Earle’s son has been on here twice, but it seemed about time to write up the legend himself. We’ve been perhaps a little remiss in our attention to his sprawling discography, but a road trip spin of The Mountain brought this excellent train song to mind. The album came out in 1999 and its a collaboration between Earle and the bluegrass outfit the DelMcCoury Band. Its a great record, by the way, blending rousing bluegrass instrumentation with powerful lyrics and Earle’s unmatchable vocals, and it also happens to includes one of our favorite Civil War songs, Dixieland, based on a character from the Gettysburg novel, Killer Angels. If there’s one thing we love as much as train songs, its Civil War songs, but that’s definitely a topic for another blog…

In this tune, Earle reminisces about the Texas Eagle, an old train that since has been shut down and sold to Mexico. His grandfather was a “railroad man” who took Earle for a ride on the Texas Eagle “‘fore its gone.” The blue and silver train eventually did bite the dust, as the line went under and the train was sold to Mexico. Earle laments that “nowaday’s they don’t make no trains,” a common lament in backwards-looking train songs like this. But even though the train is gone, the memory of the whistle lingers as a haunting reminder of past glories.

The Texas Eagle route historically ran from 1948 to 1970 was under control of the Missouri Pacific Railroad and the Texas & Pacific Railway. Like many of the beloved passenger rail routes of yore, like the Southern Crescent, City of New Orleans, and Southern Pacific, Amtrak revived the Texas Eagle name and stuck it on the passenger route from Chicago through Texas and on to the West Coast. But in Earle’s mind (and in the opinion of many others), these don’t match up to the old glamour lines – Earle derisively refers to the reincarnated routes as “them Amtrak things.”

Texas Eagle

So Texas Eagle fits right into the grand tradition of train songs that invoke trains for nostalgic purposes. The personalized story gives this one a little more power and lest anyone doubt Earle’s sincerity here, in a song-by-song writeup of the album Earle unequivocally declared, “every single word of this song is true.”

Josh Ritter – Harrisburg

Like the best of the modern train song troubadours updating this old cliche for the 21st century, Josh Ritter approaches the business of train songs with a wink and a nod. As he sings on “Me & Jiggs” an early cut of his, “on a Saturday night in a town like tonight I forget all my songs about trains.” Because of course, any folk singer worth their salt has a veritable freight car’s worth of train songs in their repertoire. And he is probably right to poke fun at himself, for Ritter does not disappoint in this department.

Harrisburg is a dark, acoustic guitar-driven story-telling ballad. Played live the song takes on a more jaunty tone, and Ritter always stretches out the middle to include some sort of cover. While I prefer the simple, and somber, original version, its an interesting twist, and an example of Ritter’s impeccable showmanship. The song relates the saga of Romero, a devoutly religious immigrant who “slips like a shadow, from the family he made” and heads where the train tracks take him, on the way to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The choice of Harrisburg as a setting for a train song, may seem slightly unconventional, but its not entirely out of left field. Harrisburg was a critical railroad junction in the 19th century, as evidenced by the fact that the Confederate army’s fateful thrust North in 1863, halted at Gettysburg, had the capture of this point as its ultimate goal. Severing the tracks at Harrisburg would split the Pennsylvania Railroad, a crucial East-West route in the northern railroad system.

But sadly Romero never makes it to Harrisburg, or Heaven for that matter, dying in a hole somewhere in between. The nature of his demise is not named, but its clear the train – either by conveying him away, or perhaps more directly causing harm – is the culprit. Or the train may simply be a stand-in for the system of industrial capitalism that did Romero in. Religious imagery runs throughout the song as well, creating a powerful juxtaposition between the godly Romero and his demise at the hands of a heartless industrial system.

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The song has perhaps one the better ending lines for a train song, with Ritter snarling, “me I believe that the Garden of Eden was burned to make way for a train.” Its a line that not only fits the story of Romero, but that also harkens back to 19th century representations of railroads in art and literature. As Leo Marx argues in the classic work The Machine in the Garden the shriek of a locomotive rushing through wilderness became a common literary device to convey the jarring impact of rapid on industrialization on the pastoral ideal of early America. Time and time again, the image of the machine in the garden appeared in literature and artwork (as seen above in “The Lackawanna Valley” from 1855) to speak to the anxieties of industrial development. Railroads were the quintessential symbol of 19th century modernity, so part of the genius of the song is that it speaks to more than just Romero’s sad fate, but to the nation’s as well.

Justin Townes Earle – Workin’ for the MTA

As I write this, temperatures have plunged dramatically, which is giving me an excuse to give Justin Townes Earle a well-deserved repeat run here on the blog, with Workin’ for the MTA, a song that at its most basic level, is about being cold. Specifically its about being cold while working for the MTA, New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, which is in charge of operating the city’s massive subway system. Its a simple blues song told from the point of view of a subway operator who’s moved to NYC from the South.

“This ain’t my daddy’s train” sings the narrator, as he relates how he is the son of a railroad man from south Louisiana. Lot’s of great historical touchstones here – the Great Migration, carried out on rail lines stretching from states like Louisiana to the North is perhaps the obvious reference point. Thousands of African-Americans surged northwards in the 1910s and 20s seeking industrial jobs not unlike that of the humble subway operator. And of course, the Great Migration echoed in song, many of which were centered on the image of the departing train carrying hope but severing previous relationships.

(This video is not an official one, but its a great compilation of old archival train footage. Tip of the hat to the amateur youtube video community for this one)

But more immediately, the song shadows a personal migration for Earle, who moved to the NYC area from Tennessee before recording the album. Its off a record (Harlem River Blues) detailing Earle’s exploits in the Big Apple, many of which deal with the jarring transition from sunny South to urban jungle. So its only appropriate for Earle to shift the setting of the traditional train song to his new environment. And like many of the best modern-day train songs, the song winks at the cliched nature of the genre. Finally, the references to the narrator’s father’s profession also may carry some extra resonance for Earle, who’s career has emerged from the considerable shadow cast by his legendary father Steve Earle.

From personal experience, the MTA can be a tough beast to master, as I found out trying to find my way across Brooklyn one early (and slightly hungover) morning, only to find out half the usual stops were closed due to heavy rain. Or maybe this episode just exposed what a country rube I am. But any rate, Workin’ For the MTA is a song of comfort to southerners, or at least those accustomed to sunny climes, who end up freezing in the frigid North.

Barton Carroll – It Had to be a Train

To say Avery County, North Carolina is an interesting place would be an understatement. Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains and boasting the highest elevation of any county east of the Mississippi, its unique geography is paired with an equally odd mix of residents and developments. Elements of old Appalachia – rural poverty, vast swathes of the county lacking cell phone service, and weekly bluegrass pickings at country stores – coexist along glaring symbols of gentrification like ski slopes, upscale clothing boutiques, multimillion dollar homes and ubiquitous hordes of elderly Floridians. Add in a thriving industry of tourist traps like gem “mines,” garish displays of both natural and unnatural fall foliage and festivals venerating woolly worms, and you’ve got a truly bizarre mix, but one cannot help but notice the ever-present tensions between old and new development. One of my favorite chroniclers of the region, author Ron Rash is perhaps the best at capturing the tensions between old and new Appalachia in short stories about down-on-their-luck meth addicts and rural folk. Massive new subdivisions always seem to be lurking on the edges of his grim vignettes; just as mansions and condos popping up on surrounding ridges jarringly disrupts the natural beauty of this area. It’s a county that also happens to be, as of August, my new home, and we found ourselves on the knife’s edge of this conflict while being aggressively tailgated while attempting to navigate treacherous mountain roads in a car with Florida plates.

Coincidentally enough, this rural mountain county of 18,000 is also the subject of a new concept album of sorts from Barton Carroll, a songwriter who grew up in Avery County before moving out west to Seattle. With his distance from North Carolina, its safe to say Carroll’s nostalgia tinted view of Avery County life falls into the traditional side of this area’s divide between history and change. In an interview (an album stream is linked here as well), Carroll described the record as “reflections of an upbringing in the Appalachian Mountains seen through the lens of several years of city life on the West Coast” and its full of folk-tinged songs about lost loves and mountain memories, in the best storytelling tradition. My favorite off the record is probably “Beech Mountain Waltz,” a doomed love story about a World War 1 where a soldier goes to war while his lover dies of the Spanish Flu.

And thankfully, for the purposes of this site, he also includes a train song, “It Had to Be a Train,” yet another sad train song about a departing lover, this time leaving from Boone. There is a clever hint of self-awareness about the somewhat cliched plot of the song – the narrator mocks her choice of transportation “don’t you know the train’s outdated these days.” And indeed, a picky railroad historian would note that the last major railroad operating in the county, the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina, or “Tweetsie Railroad” was washed out in a 1957 flood. But it’s definitely an effective train song that fits well on a record built around fuzzy and somewhat distorted remembrances of the past.

Incidentally, the album just came out Tuesday (October 15) – so check it out on Skybucket Records. I’ve been playing it a lot lately, and not just because its about Avery County!

The Pine Hill Haints

Leaves are turning, a chill is in the air, and Halloween’s ghosts and ghouls are rapidly drawing near, giving us a perfect excuse to write about The Pine Hill Haints. Hailing from Auburn, Alabama, their music offers up a ramshackle blend of folk, country, bluegrass, honky-tonk and punk into a potent witches brew they dub “Alabama Ghost Music.” Behind the the howls and cackles of the energetic lead singer, their instrumentation features at various points a washboard, mandolin, washtub bass, and a slide whistle, along with more traditional implements of musical destruction.

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Their Alabama roots undergird the whiskey-soaked mythology of their music – actual historical figures like Joe Cain, a Confederate Civil War veteran credited with founding Mobile’s Mardi Gras celebration, who paraded through the streets in Indian garb with his “Lost Cause Minstrels” in defiance of Reconstruction-era Yankee occupiers, co-exist alongside ghouls such as the Natchez Shakers, Jack-O-Fires, Bordello Blackwidows and traditional bluegrass heroes like Wild Bill Jones, Handsome Molly and the (ubiquitous) Wayfaring Stranger. Drawing on both actual history and a long tradition of Americana mythology, it is thus no surprise that train tracks and ghost trains criss-cross their violent, inebriated, and of-course, haunted retelling of southern history. Here are but a few of their train songs of note, which should help put you in a Halloween spirit:

“Screaming Jenny” relates the legend of a woman who, after being lit alight by a spark from a passing train on the B&O railroad, ran screaming onto the tracks, where she was subsequently mowed down by another train. Her fiery ghost still allegedly haunts the tracks near Harpers Ferry on the anniversary of her death. Not only is this a cool story, it also is a great idea for a Halloween costume for any fans of a ghost train-inspired holiday.

“Riding the Long Southern Train Blues”, references the history of the Southern Railway, once the largest corporation in the South, whose tracks traversed all corners of Alabama. The song retells a story of childhood train watching, and dire warnings about rail safety, and as the meandering 5 minute song draws to its conclusion, the band mimics the sound of a train gathering steam and then slowing to a halt as it approaches the station.

“Trains Have No Names” features an awesome piece of train-themed cover art, and again, the shuffling drums and backdrop of spectral whistling capture the sound of a passing train.

And finally, “Ghost Train,” is about a young boy warned by his mother to stay away from the window to avoid seeing the haunted train that comes “burning down” the rails at 11:59. The lead singer’s howling and ratcheting sounds like an actual train here – along with a backdrop of tortured screaming. These haunted trains join Justin Townes Earle’s Ghost of Virginia, in this great subgenre of the train song. If there’s one conclusion we can reach about ghost trains from this rudimentary investigation, they do always seem to appear at a scheduled time or anniversary.

The Haints have even more train songs than these four – making them one of the top purveyors of train songs out there today. For a history nerd like myself, its hard to resist the way they blend fact and the best strands of southern mythology and folklore in their records. And the music ain’t bad as well…

Elizabeth Cotten – Freight Train

In a rare departure, we are pleased to feature breaking news in the world of train songs today. In Carrboro, the state of North Carolina is unveiling a marker to honor Elizabeth Cotten, a resident famous for her song “Freight Train.” The linked article from the Raleigh News-Observer relates the whole tale, but as the story goes, as a teenager Cotton would sit outside her house and watch trains fly by on the Norfolk Southern Line. Inspired by this sight, she penned Freight Train, a simple ode to the Iron Horse. A bit of a morbid song coming from a teenager, “Freight Train” marvels at the speed of the train, and Cotten asks to be buried near the tracks when she dies so she “can hear old number 9 as she comes rolling by.” After marrying and moving out of the area, she mostly gave up guitar for decades, before she was discovered by the Seeger family in the 60s.

This is our first entry in the category of train songs and historical markers, but its an interesting question to consider which train songs are linked to a physical site like this. This is not the first historical marker linked to a train song – the wreck of the Old 97 in Danville, VA has a marker as well. Beyond this wreck, all train wreck ballads are associated with some particular location, though many of these are not well preserved. For understandable reasons, railroad corporations are not particularly eager to mark out tragedies like these, and many of the sites of these wrecks occurred remain active rail lines, out of the reach of tourists’ prying eyes.

old 97 marker

Swannanoa Tunnel in North Carolina, immortalized in song by Bascom Lamar Lunsford, among others, and site of a tragic cave-in, has a marker as well.

swannanoa tunnel

There are surely more of these out there, and this is a topic we will have to return to, but for now its nice to have a train-song related historical marker for something positive. The landscape of Carrboro, like many old railroad towns, remains dominated by the railroad, so the marker surely will integrate well into the area. Tracks run directly through the town, and one can grab dinner at the Southern Rail restaurant, or down a stiff drink at the Station, an old depot renovated and turned into a bar. If nothing else, this story gives us an excuse to head back to Carrboro sometime to check out the marker and the area’s great string of watering holes. Kudos to my new state of North Carolina for putting up the sign!