A 10-year ride with Railroad Earth
March 18, 2011
Railroad Earth is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year and the focus is still on the music.
"We’re still trying to reach as many people around the country as possible and keep a business afloat," said Railroad Earth’s mandolinist John Skehan. "It’s expensive to get out there and get on tour, but our mode of travel has improved from our first beat-up old van that we thought wouldn’t make it past Pennsylvania."
Those days still resonate with Skehan.
"We’ve come to realize it takes a lot to keep the band rolling," he said. "The first few years, we’d go out for eight weeks at a time, which is a long time being on the road when playing four or five nights a week."
These days, the band still hits the road, but has upgraded its approach.
One of the challenges is keeping things creative and fresh musically," Skehan said. "A lot comes through improvisation, changing the arrangements and creating new material, which is a challenge when you’re on the road a lot. It’s a hurdle, but rewarding."
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Skehan said the one thing that helps keep the band sane is playing live.
"There’s a feeling when the band is firing on all cylinders and the audience is responding," he said. "There is nothing that matches that.
"We’ve also, on a more tangible level, been blessed with the people we have crossed paths with, and have surrounded ourselves with."
While other bands favor different aspects of the job live gigs, recording CDs or writing songs Railroad Earth embraces the whole package, Skehan said.
"We love playing live," he said. "We also love starting a recording project, not knowing where it will take us, while making huge discoveries on the way."
The discovery of Celtic music lured Skehan away from piano and guitar while he developing his musical style before Railroad Earth came together.
"I studied piano throughout college, but was also interested in guitar and all the different kinds of rock and folk music," Skehan said during a phone interview from his home in Northern New Jersey. "At one point I got hooked on the Celtic stuff, and after attempting to play them on guitar, I realized those Irish fiddle tunes didn’t fit logically under the fingers when playing the guitar."
A friend, who also played guitar, gave Skehan a mandolin.
"I found the mandolin is tuned the same as the fiddle, and all of sudden it was a lot easier to play these tunes I wanted to play," he said.
Shortly thereafter, Skehan discovered the music of Grammy Award-nominee David Grisman.
"That led further down the road to bluegrass explorations, and, before I knew it, I was off attending bluegrass festivals and decided that’s what I wanted to do."
Being a part of the tight-knit acoustic-music community in Northern New Jersey was instrumental in brining Railroad Earth together, Skehan said.
"Most of us had known and had worked with each other over the years," he said. "Our fiddle player Tim Carbone and multi-instrumentalist Andy Goessling played together for a long time in different bands. Myself and Tim had played in different bands together with drummer Carey Harmon."
Railroad Earth’s guitarist/singer Todd Sheaffer, in the meantime, made a name for himself with the band From Good Homes, Skehan said.
"We all knew about them," he said. "After crossing paths in one way or another all those years, we decided to play together."
Last year, longtime bassist Johnny Grubb took his leave and was replaced by Andrew Altman, Skehan said.
Back in October, the band released its sixth album, "Railroad Earth." Unlike the previous disc, "Amen Corner," the band went into the studio with a collection of songs that were finished or nearly finished, Skehan said.
"When we joined the record label One Haven, Michael Caplan, who is CD’s executive producer, sat down with Todd and went through all the his songs, and hand selected the ones that appear on the album," Skehan explained. "Most of the songs were brand new to the band and came from things Todd had been working on."
The CD was the first to place on the Billboard Top 200, coming in at 138.
"That brief moment took us by surprise," Skehan said. "It got the CD off on a good start."
Railroad Earth and the Infamous Stringdusters will play Harry O’s on Wednesday, March 23, at 9 p.m. Tickets are $22.50 and available at http://www.24tix.com.