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.
Living in Gainesville, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting someone in a punk band, a fact that has certainly helped me broaden my musical horizons and discover artists like Tim Barry. Tim Barry was the front man for Avail, a DC-area punk band big in the 90s, before switching focus to solo records in the 00s. It would be easy to dismiss his as just another aging-punk-goes-country cliche, but the earnestness of his music helps him stand out from the pack. Lyrically, his stuff is brutally honest, dealing with topics like busted relationships, what it means to be punk/authentic, and critiques of modern capitalism and the rat race it creates. His live shows almost take on the feel of a self-help session, with Barry preaching his back-to-basics ethos and the virtues of independent living.
An integral part of this worldview involves trains, as he is an avid fan of hopping trains out of his home in Richmond. For Barry, and indeed for any of the many modern-day tramps out there, riding the rails is both a way to see and experience the underbelly of America, the backs of towns, and forgotten countrysides traversed by rail lines, and its the ultimate way to get off the grid and drop out of modern life for a while. For more on train hopping, check out this documentary, Cure for the Crash, a film I randomly discovered in the course of a night out on Frenchman Street in New Orleans. It should thus come as no surprise that Barry is one of the more prolific modern producers of train songs.
Church of Level Track is off Rivanna Junction, his first full solo album which also happens to boast a railroad-inspired name. The song tells the tale of using a journey around the southeast to figure things out with a buddy. The narrator smokes, drinks and contemplates life on a freight train heading south from Rocky Mount (in NC) to Florida, but when the train breaks up in Jacksonville, his friend heads west towards Pensacola. Riding the rails is living life to the fullest, as Barry sings in the chorus, “if I die thinking here I wont die wondering how life could’ve turned out.” Barry also warns “sometimes its best to slow your pace when you cant control it.” While I probably lack the fortitude and sense of adventure to ride the rails like Barry, this is certainly worthwhile advice in these times of fast-living and constant connectedness.