Various Artists Americana Railroad Renew/BMG
Perhaps unintentionally also a tribute to previous generations of Americana artists who much earlier blazed a trail—folks like Elizabeth Cotton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Hedy West, John Stewart, Gene Clark, and a handful of others—by both covering their signature songs while adding to the rich sub-genre of train songs they and their like established, Americana Railroad is one of this year’s most impressive roots releases.
Previously available as a limited-edition Record Store Release on vinyl, the CD and digital types will get to experience the album June 17.
Few of these songs are unknown with only Dave Alvin’s “Southwest Chief” qualifying as newly written although all the performances are, I believe, unique to the project. “Southwest Chief” is a brilliantly composed song, using the rhythms of a cross-country train ride to capture images of loss for a song never written with Bill Morrissey. Yes, this one checks all the boxes with Alvin’s voice gently revealing the regret for experiences delayed.
Pleasant surprises appear around each bend of this 75-minute journey. Whether it is a particular favourite song being explored, such as John Stewart’s lonesome “Runaway Train” (John York does the honours) or Hedy West’s “500 Miles” (Alice Howe, just what I needed—another new-to-me favourite to explore) or as frequently it is a long-ignored artist unexpectedly appearing (Rocky Burnette taking on “Freight Train” and Gary Myrick cutting lose on “Train Kept A-Rollin’”), this collection has a lot to offer all who appreciate Americana and all her shades.
Album originator and co-producer Carla Olson makes a few appearances, primarily on two tracks also featuring Stephen McCarthy. His “Here Comes That Train Again,” originally on the State of Our Union album, kicks off the album in fine form, with the album closing with he and Olson performing Gene Clark’s poignant “I Remember the Railroad.” Olson also contributes “Whiskey Train” with Brian Ray (Paul McCartney, Willie DeVille, Etta James) and on a pair of Robert Rex Waller, Jr. (I See Hawks In LA) tracks including a revisitation of Rank & File’s seminal cow-punk classic “The Conductor Wore Black,” which also features co-writer Chip Kinman on guitar. Lots of connections to be made throughout the set. And, before it escapes me, Waller’s straight-forward representation of Steve Young’s timeless “Midnight Rail” is absolutely [insert fire emoji].
Additional highlights include Dustbowl Revivals’ take of “Marrakesh Express,” Paul Burch & Fats Kaplin’s “Waiting for a Train,” and Dom Flemons’ new, harmonica-laden “Steel Pony Blues.” The allegorical, spiritual side of things is covered in soulful fashion by Deborah Poppink and “People Get Ready” and Peter Case’s interpretation of “This Train.” The album’s most impressive performance may also be its briefest, AJ Haynes’ (of Seratones) “Freight Train;” yes, I have some catching up to do!
Americana Railroad is destined to be on several year-end lists, including mine. A blend of fiery, guitar-based performances and intimate-sounding troubadour-roots presentations, the album captures slices of the influence the railway has had on our kindsa music, bridging the past and present. Very enjoyable.