Interview and Photos by Scott Preston
Railroad Earth’s music is driven by the remarkable songs of front-man, Todd Sheaffer, and is delivered with seamless arrangements and superb musicianship courtesy of all six band members. As mandolin player John Skehan points out, “Our M.O. has always been that we can improvise all day long, but we only do it in service to the song. There are a lot of songs that, when we play them live, we adhere to the arrangement from the record. And other songs, in the nature and the spirit of the song, everyone knows we can kind of take flight on them.” Sheaffer continues: “The songs are our focus, our focal point, they give the improvisation a starting point. The jams sort of ‘comment’ on the songs, and give them color. Some songs lend themselves to improvisation. They ‘want’ to be approached that way – where we can explore and trade musical ideas and open them up to different territories. But sometimes it is what the song is about.”
When the band does elect to “comment” on a song via an extended improvisation, they really cook – and have received the approval of no less than Grateful Dead bass player Phil Lesh, who knows a thing or two about jamming. In fact, Mr. Lesh even used the RRE members as the “Friends” in his Phil & Friends band, and learned to play some of RRE’s repertoire, blowing the group’s collective mind.
So: they can jam with the best of them, but they’re not a jam band. They’re bluegrass influenced, but they use drums and amplifiers (somewhat taboo in the bluegrass world). What kind of music is it then? Mandolin/vocalist John Skehan offers this semi-descriptive term: “I always describe it as a string band, but an amplified string band with drums.” Tim Carbone takes a swing: “We’re a Country & Eastern band! ” Todd Sheaffer offers “A souped-up string band? I don’t know. I’m not good at this.” Or, as a great drummer/singer/mandolin player with an appreciation for Americana once said: “Rock & roll!”
Cincy Groove: How was it playing with the Allman Bros a few weeks ago?
Tim Carbone: That was a great time, I also got to sit in with them on a old Robert Johnson tune, Come In My Kitchen.
Cincy Groove: Are there any new Railroad Earth projects in the works?
Tim Carbone: We are waiting for our schedules to get freed up so we can go back into the studio early next year. Either late winter or early spring. We don’t have any new songs worked up yet but that’s never stopped us before. (laughing)
Cincy Groove: How did Railroad Earth end up getting together?
Tim Carbone: We all knew each from various bands we had been playing in the New Jersey area. Andy Goessling our banjo player, guitar player, dobro player and everything else player played with myself for quite a few years and still to from time to time in a band called Blue Sparks from Hell. We actively toured playing 200 – 250 gigs for about 18 years. I also played for about 6 months in Todd’s old band, From Good Homes right before they signed with RCA. John Skehan, our mandolin player, and I had been playing with on and off for many years. We all pretty much knew each other from all the different collaborations over the years. We all just seemed to be available at the same time. About that time Andy Goessling would organize these picking sessions at his house in the weekends. At any given time there would be 5 – 10 people there playing. By the end of the summer, beginning of the fall of 1999, there were just a few of us left standing, basically the string players. I kind of tricked our drummer into joining the band, because at the time Carey was playing full time in another band and I told him that we were going into the studio to record some demos and we needed a drummer to help finish the tracks.
Cincy Groove: What have been some of the more exciting collaborations you have been a part of?
Tim Carbone: There have been a couple. I have had the most incredible luck to play with 2 of the best bass players in rock and roll history, Phil Lesh from the Grateful Dead and Rick Danko from The Band. After the Blue Sparks got off the road Andy Goessling and I were in another band, Kings In Disguise and would backup Rick Danko anytime he needed a backup band he would call us. It was just an amazing experience to get to play all of those great Band tunes. Playing them was almost in my DNA, I remember playing those tunes as teenager. The three bands that had the most influence on me growing up was The Band, The Beatles and The Grateful Dead. Then getting to play with Phil Lesh on one of his Phil & Friends tours is up there with some of the most exciting experiences of my life. He is an extraordinary band leader and really knows what he wants.
Cincy Groove: I know you are also a producer, what projects are you currently working on?
Tim Carbone: In 2008 I did an album with a group called Boris Garcia. I’m also going to be working with them again in the very near future. There’s another group I’m working on a record with called White Water Ramble from Colorado. I love playing live, I love playing with Railroad Earth, but if their ever comes a time when I physically can’t play anymore, I can still produce records.
Cincy Groove: With 6 people in the band, whats the songwriting process like in the studio?
Tim Carbone: For the most part Todd is the songwriter. He will come in with a sketch of a song, loose melody, some chord changes and then we will start to work with it and build it up. I have worked with Todd on a couple songs, but for the most part it’s all Todd. Railroad Earth has a vibe that directly comes from the lyrical and melodic content of the songs.
Cincy Groove: What do you think about how the internet has changed the music industry?
Tim Carbone: From what was destroyed something new shall be built. On one hand the internet almost destroyed the music industry. But then again, the internet is the music industry’s best hope for survival. What has happened is that musicians can’t relay so much on cd sales for income, but rather to survive they must tour. Only a very small percentage of musicians really make money on music that they sell. People really don’t have a problem taking music from the internet. Last year I was hired to do a lecture at a local college here in Pennsylvania. There were about 80 people in the room and the topic they gave me was “The Devil and the Music Business”. I thought this was perfect topic for me. Early on in the lecture , I said, by a show of hands how many people have illegally downloaded music this year? Almost every single one of them put their hand up. Then I asked how many people have purchased a cd this year? Maybe 8 or 9 people raised their hands. So it did destroy the music business as we knew it, but you know what? It kind of sucked anyway. To a certain degree the internet has leveled the playing field. For bands that are right below us on the ladder it presents a lot of opportunities that they otherwise might not have.
Cincy Groove: Being a self taught musician, what was the first instrument you taught yourself to play?
Tim Carbone: It was the drums. I was in a drum/bugle choir when I was 11. I was also the only kid in the neighborhood that had a snare drum and cymbals. So I was a drummer in my very first band. Then a kid around the block got a full drum set so they fired me. But then I got back in the band when my parents bought me an organ. Then I became the organ player (laughing). The band’s name was The Avengers.
Railroad Earth is:
Todd Sheaffer – Vocals, Acoustic Guitars
Tim Carbone – Violin, Vocals
John Skehan – Mandolin, Bouzouki, Vocals
Andy Goessling – Acoustic Guitars, Banjo, Dobro, Mandolin, Flute, Pennywhistle, Saxophones, Vocals
Carey Harmon – Drums, Percussion, Vocals
Johnny Grubb – The Bass
Oct 23 2009 PARADISE ROCK CLUB BOSTON, Massachusetts
Oct 24 2009 PARADISE ROCK CLUB BOSTON, Massachusetts
Oct 26 2009 BEACHLAND BALLROOM CLEVELAND, Ohio
Oct 27 2009 MR. SMALLS THEATER MILLVALE, Pennsylvania
Oct 29 2009 BARRYMORE THEATER MADISON, Wisconsin
Oct 30 2009 VIC THEATER CHICAGO, Illinois
Oct 31 2009 ROYAL OAK MUSIC THEATER Royal Oak, Michigan
Nov 13 2009 Bearsville Theater Woodstock, NY
Nov 14 2009 Bearsville Theater Woodstock, NY
Nov 19 2009 Fox Theatre Boulder, CO
Nov 20 2009 Fox Theatre Boulder, CO
Nov 21 2009 Fox Theatre Boulder, CO
Nov 27 2009 SHERMAN THEATER STROUDSBURG, Pennsylvania
Nov 28 2009 SHERMAN THEATER STROUDSBURG, Pennsylvania
Dec 10 2009 MUSIC HALL OF WILLIAMSBURG brooklyn, New York
Dec 11 2009 9:30 CLUB washington, Washington DC
Dec 12 2009 THEATER OF LIVING ARTS PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania
Dec 27 2009 THE FILLMORE SAN FRANCISCO, California
Dec 28 2009 THE FILLMORE SAN FRANCISCO, California
Dec 30 2009 CRYSTAL BALLROOM PORTLAND, Oregon
Dec 31 2009 ALADDIN THEATER PORTLAND, Oregon
Jan 3 2010 JAMCRUISE 8 FT. LAUDERDALE, Florida