Join us as we check out another show from the eTown archives! This week, we’re featuring progressive bluegrass-influenced Americana band Railroad Earth and blues powerhouse Matt Andersen. Our interview guest for the week is the President of Sweet Relief Musicians Fund, Bill Bennet, who chats with Nick about providing financial assistance to struggling musicians.
Adopting their moniker from a Jack Kerouac poem, Railroad Earth emerged from the breakup of one of New Jersey’s most popular groups, From Good Homes. Led by main songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist Todd Sheaffer, the band combines technical virtuosity and lyrical songwriting with keen improvisational skills and employs a distinctive blend of progressive bluegrass, folk, rock, country, jazz, Celtic, and Americana. Debuting in 2001 with The Black Bear Sessions, Railroad Earth has remained at the forefront of the American roots music scene for over two decades, issuing acclaimed efforts like The Good Life (2004), Railroad Earth (2010), Last of the Outlaws (2014), and All for the Song (2022), and delighting audiences with their spirited and inventive live performances.
Railroad Earth’s seeds were planted as far back as 1998, when violinist Timothy Carbone (Blue Sparks from Hell, Kings in Disguise) met film music supervisor Brian Ross, a former booking agent with Family Tree Agency, at the now-defunct Wetlands club in New York City. The two started a conversation about bluegrass music during a break in the evening’s lineup. After keeping in touch for several months, the two hatched an idea to gather together professional musicians in New Jersey to play bluegrass at informal jam sessions. Meanwhile, Ross hired Carbone and Andy Goessling (also in Blue Sparks from Hell, Kings in Disguise) to play music for the film Big Eden. Sheaffer arrived at the bluegrass sessions in the fall of 2000 with some new songs, which the musicians rendered as bluegrass numbers.
All the musicians started to gather at the Shindig, an open-mike event sponsored by the Pocono Bluegrass Society. Informal jam sessions continued at Goessling’s house, with multi-instrumentalist John Skehan (Bobby Syvarth Band) joining the other three musicians. Eventually, Ross approached the musicians about forming a band and performing as Railroad Earth. The new group secured its core members in Sheaffer (who handled vocals and acoustic guitar), Goessling (acoustic guitar, mandolin, banjo, penny whistle, saxophone), Carbone (violin, acoustic guitar), and session player John Skehan (mandolin, guitar, piano). Drummer/percussionist Carey Harmon (formerly with the Hour and Bobby Syvarth Band) and upright/electric bassist Dave Von Dollen completed the lineup in January 2001.
One month after forming, the bluegrass-rock group recorded a five-song demo at Mixolydian Studios in Lafayette, New Jersey. Four of those songs (“Head,” “Black Bear,” “Stillwater Getaway,” and “Cold Water”) were combined with six new songs recorded in April 2001 to form the band’s debut CD, The Black Bear Sessions, which was released in June by BOS Music. Railroad Earth broadened their songwriting style during the remainder of 2001, carrying on the improvisational, multiple-genre tradition started by the Grateful Dead, String Cheese Incident, Phish, and Leftover Salmon. The group skated the edge of traditional bluegrass and the jam band tradition to produce an eclectic blend of folk, Celtic, jazz, and rock filtered through a bluegrass lens. A second album (and the band’s first release for Sugar Hill), Bird in a House, followed in 2002, and producer Stewart Lerman joined Railroad Earth in the studio to record 2004’s The Good Life, which marked the departure of bassist Von Dollen and the arrival of new bass player Johnny Grub. After a long national tour, the band issued the concert LP Elko.
Railroad Earth toured heavily, but the band also found time to regularly return to the studio. In 2008, they released their fourth studio effort, Amen Corner, which doubled as their last recording with bassist Johnny Grubb,. The group drafted Andrew Altman as his replacement and hit the studio once again, this time to record 2010’s self-titled Railroad Earth, which was the first of the band’s studio albums to feature electric guitars. After long periods of touring and some well-deserved time off, Railroad Earth released 2014’s critically acclaimed Last of the Outlaws, which included an ambitious 21-minute-long suite. In 2017, the band was contacted by the John Denver Estate and asked to compose music for lyrics penned by the late country-folk legend. The resulting EP, The John Denver Letters, was released on Earth Day the following year. 2018 also marked the loss of founding member Andy Goessling, who passed away from cancer. Railroad Earth headed to New Orleans to work with producer Anders Osbourne for their next LP. Entitled All for the Song, the 2022 release featured the single “The Great Divide,” a moving Sheaffer-penned tribute to Goessling.
Award-winning Canadian blues guitarist and singer/songwriter Matt Andersen is known as one of Canada’s hardest-working musicians, averaging around 200 live performances per year. Specializing in an earthy blend of blue-collar folk, electric blues, and roots rock, the New Brunswick native began his musical career in 2002 with the group Flat Top. He issued his solo debut, Second Time Around, in 2007, followed in 2008 by Something in Between and in 2009 by Piggyback, the latter of which was a collaboration with acclaimed harmonica player Mike Stevens. That same year he issued his first concert album, Live from the Phoenix Theatre, and later his first collection of holiday music, Christmas Time. A pair of studio albums, Push Record (with Mike Stevens) and Coal Miner Blues, followed in 2011. The Steve Berlin-produced Weightless, his debut long-player for the True North label, arrived in 2014, earning Andersen a Juno nomination for Roots & Traditional Album of the Year. For his follow-up, he traveled to New York, working with producer Commissioner Gordon (Amy Winehouse, Joss Stone) to record 2016’s Honest Man. The concert album Live at Olympic Hall appeared in 2018, and featured Andersen backed by his band the Mellotones at the historic Halifax, Nova Scotia venue.