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.

The Band – The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

We have been in a bit of a Civil War kind of mindset these days with all the 150th anniversary events going on up at Gettysburg earlier this month, so today we have a Civil War train song. The authenticity police out there may point out that the man who wrote this song, Robbie Robertson, is not a died-in-the-wool Confederate, but a Canadian. However, the song does accurately capture the plight of Confederate soldiers in the early days after Lee’s surrender. The video posted here is from The Last Waltz, a recording of the legendary last performance of The Band.

The song tells the story of Virgil Caine, who served “on the Danville train,” which undoubtedly refers to the Richmond & Danville line, a crucial rail corridor linked the capital of the Confederacy with North Carolina, and the rest of the rebellious nation. The last Union attacks on Petersburg were designed to sever this line and isolate the capital Richmond. Attacks on railroads were common during the war – Sherman’s men left a trail of “Sherman’s Neckties,” twisted and mangled pieces of track, all through their march through the South.

The rest of the song is a powerful portrait of the man’s struggles, describing his wife back in Tennessee, and brother felled by Union bullets. Indeed, its a testament to the power of the song, that it sounds like it could have been written in 1865 by some forlorn Johnny Reb. Even an unabashed Yankee like myself can appreciate the plight of the common Confederate soldier after the war, though if the youtube videos and comments on this are to be believed, the song is a bit of a magnet for the neo-Confederate types looking to tell their version of the war.

As a bonus version, here is bizarre cover of the song featuring Joan Baez and some muppets. She flubs the Stoneman’s cavalry line as well, substituting Stonewall Jackson, who fought for the South and who was dead for 2 years before the events of the song. I honestly don’t think I am old enough to understand why this exists, but its certainly an interesting rendition.

Justin Townes Earle – Ghost of Virginia

Justin Townes Earle has garnered heaps of critical praise for the way in which he effortlessly blends Americana musical traditions, with a contemporary sensibility and a flair for showmanship. Covers of obscure old country and folk songs are a standard in his set lists, so it should thus be no surprise that trains, a favorite topic of the original generation of country music singers, show up all throughout his discography. Ghost of Virginia is perhaps my favorite train song of his, both lyrically and musically, but it will certainly not be the last one featured here. The live video above comes from an excellent playlist of youtube videos, which all record an energetic live performance by Earle.

Though the song is an original, the subject matter and Earle’s arrangement mean its not much of a stretch to imagine a song like this on the tongues of the Appalachian balladeers of old.  The imagery of the lyrics is great – from the cold, black steel of the train and the smoke billowing out of the wheels, to the screaming sound, and the surrounding pine trees along the route. Not only is it a train song, its also a Civil War song, as the train travels the route between Raleigh and Richmond, a route that was so vital to the war effort, that the Confederate government had to forcibly shift the gauge of the North Carolina Railroad to match the gauge of capital’s Richmond & Danville line. The air of mystery about the ghost train – the second-hand rumors of its appearance, suggestions that it either is atoning for a wreck, or gathering up lost souls on its way South – only adds to the mythology of the song.

Ghost trains are a fascinating topic that probably deserve a post here in their own right, but for now its worth at least mentioning a interesting example from North Carolina that shares some characteristics with the Ghost of Virginia.  Every year on the anniversary of a train wreck in 1891 a ghost train allegedly appears on Bostian’s Bridge, just outside of Statesville. Like Earle’s Ghost of Virginia, this ghost train is linked with an awful wreck.  Witnesses claim to see and hear the train passing over the bridge, and some have also claimed to see spectral baggage men or other crew members.  The ghost train made the news after ghost hunters on the track tragically encountered an actual train on the still-active line in 2010.

And I have at least some evidence that ghost trains were a 19th century phenomena as well. This 1881 article in the Railway Gazette noted the appearance of one in Georgia. A man claimed to see an approaching engine along the path of the Western & Atlantic Railroad, but he heard no sound. The man also described a “pale, wide-eyed engineer,” and the “ghostly, phantom-like” machinery.  So while there is certainly much more to be written about ghost trains, for now its safe to say that Ghost of Virginia is a great encapsulation of strands of both folklore and actual history – another reason why Justin Townes Earle is one of my favorite songwriters.