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The song was originally made famous by Frank Hutchinson, a West Virginia born musician who owes his musical origins partly to listening to a blues playing black railroad worker while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.
Apologies for the delays in updates, the trains have been backed up at the station, or in other words, I have been planning a move and getting ready to start a new job, which has seriously cut into train-song writing time. But anyways, one of the main themes here, or at least one of my personal favorite aspects of train songs, is how they typically update old styles (both musically and lyrically) for new generations of audiences. Austin Lucas certainly fits this trend. By far the most musically proficient of the legions of punk-turned-country troubadours out there, Lucas obviously has had some schooling in classic Americana, and he blends punk and bluegrass in a way that sounds totally authentic and not at all contrived. Earlier albums of his are almost entirely acoustic but the electric guitars have been increasing appearing on his newer albums, which add a harder edge to his already powerful songwriting.
Off of Lucas’s 2011 release New Home in the Old World, Thunder Rail addresses a troubled period of life living near a an “aging railway line,” presumably in Logan County (though I unfortunately don’t know enough about Lucas’s life to know which Logan County this is referring to). Like any good train song, Thunder Rail is chock full of train puns like spinning wheels and sparked and smoking timber. Through various breakdowns and traumas in the narrator’s life, the only constant is the thundering rail of the train that passes, which would be comforting were it not for the noise. I love watching trains as much as the next guy, but living on or near a rail line certainly would get old. Besides addressing the problems of living near a railroad, the song speaks to one truth about trains that appears in many train songs– for better or worse they usually can be counted on to arrive on schedule. Its yet another sad train song – another common thread here at Lonesome Whistles.
Austin Lucas incidentally has just signed with New West Records (joining Lonesome Whistle favorites the Drive-By Truckers) and his has a new one is coming out in August, that includes backing instrumentation from Glossary. Here is a new track that showcases a heavier direction. Suffice to say, this new song rocks, and I am definitely excited about this record.
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.