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.”

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Chatham County Line – The Carolinian

In honor of my impending move (later this summer) to the North Carolina mountains, today we have a bluegrass song about the Tarheel state. As far as genres are concerned, bluegrass may be one of the most train-friendly. Listening to a Doc Watson greatest hits album is almost like listening to my train songs playlist, so this will certainly not be the last time some bluegrass shows up here. Along with Trampled by Turtles, The Fox Hunt, and Old Crow Medicine Show, Chatham County Line are one my favorite new bluegrass groups out there. Their Carolina roots run deep, both in the band name, and the subject matter of their songs.

Just as Chatham County Line offers up a modernized take on bluegrass, The Carolinian is twist on one of the oldest train song tropes – the lover leaving on a train.  In this case, the romance starts on the train itself, when the singer falls for a woman on the southbound Carolinian train, heading from DC to NC.  But she is bound for Richmond and the narrator is on the way to Raleigh, where he already has a woman about to bear him a son.  Before she leaves she asks him to come to Richmond and start a new life.He declines, but the decision always lingers in his mind, and every time he sees the north bound Carolinian, his heart stops. He even brings his son (now grown up) to the tracks to watch trains roll by.  The Carolinian is a still-active Amtrak route, though I must say, my experience riding Amtrak, while pleasant enough, had none of the glamor of the song.  My seat partner was a dude bound for a bachelor party in Miami, who woke up hungover after drinking too much in the snack car, and the only hints of a rail-bound romance was when an older man aggressively (and unsuccessfully) hit on a younger woman a few seats behind me. But the song tells a great story, and it presents an entirely new way in which trains can inflict emotional carnage.