The Joy of the Jam
Railroad Earth’s John Skehan on Rex, collaboration, and the sacrament of live music
By Casey Lowdermilk
“We’re very fortunate, in that we are able to reach a lot of people who would be willing to help out in any way they can with any worthwhile cause.” -John Skehan
What’s in a band name? Railroad Earth conjures up road-tested musicians, on a quest for inspiration from the land and people around them.
It’s quite apparent that the band has taken a few cues from the Beat generation- the name comes from a poem by Jack Kerouac, and their lyrics carry a similar vivid and poetic quality. Each song is beautifully structured, with imaginative, open-ended lyrics accompanied by a six-piece acoustic ensemble. One tells a story of a desperate bird seeking freedom, while others romantically ponder identity, love and life. It’s as if each song is a painting, with the musicianship and lyrics acting as the brushstrokes. No single contribution dominates or defines the work; all skillfully intertwine to reveal an alluring masterpiece. Railroad Earth’s live show consists of their original songs and timeless covers, reinvented with seamless, improvisational interplay among the musicians.
This combination of talented musicianship and soulful lyrics has brought Railroad Earth faster-than-average success. Just four months after its first show in 2001, the New Jersey-based band found itself on the lineup of the famous Telluride Bluegrass Festival. They’ve been touring America and getting enthusiastic receptions from a wide variety of fans along the way from Americana, bluegrass, and jamband fans to former Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, who caught a performance of Railroad Earth in 2004 in San Francisco. He soon invited both Tim Carbone (fiddle) and John Skehan (mandolin) to join Phil & Friends for a three-night run at the Warfield in December 2004. They will continue to travel the country this summer with stops at Bonnaroo, Wakarusa, and even the Fuji Rock Festival.
In celebration of the Rex Foundation’s 20th anniversary, Railroad Earth and The String Cheese Incident played a concert at the Tweeter Center in Camden, New Jersey in November 2004. The evening was a celebration of the music and of Rex. Fans were impressed by the lively collaborations, wonderful songs and a sense of community.
The evening helped to foster a growing relationship between the two bands. Railroad Earth released their most recent album, Elko, on SCI Fidelity Records (founded by SCI) and will help kick off The String Cheese Incident’s farewell tour this summer with an opening spot at their Greek Theatre (Berkeley) show in July.
The Rex Foundation recently had an opportunity to discuss San Francisco, the finer points of developing new material, and the band’s ongoing support of Rex with mandolin player John Skehan.
Rex Foundation: Why is it important for Railroad Earth to be involved with charitable organizations such as the Rex Foundation?
John Skehan, Railroad Earth: I think automatically we’re very fortunate, in that we are able to reach a lot of people who, I believe, would most likely be willing to help out in any way they can with any worthwhile cause.
On our New Year’s Eve run this past year, we started doing food and clothing drives. Part of it was something that we simply never really had the mechanisms in place to do before. As we’ve grown a little bit, we have more and more people helping out with the logistics surrounding this whole thing. It became very easy to coordinate. We’re lucky to have someone who’s willing to reach out to all the various charitable organizations, city by city, to put together food drives, clothing drives and it seems like it really worked well. If you can make it work, it’s such a great thing to be able to do. It makes us feel good.
Rex: In November of 2004, RRE helped the Rex celebrate its 20th anniversary at the Tweeter Center with SCI. What can you remember about that night?
Skehan: I remember being thrilled to be able to get out and play with Cheese. I think we came out and played a couple of tunes with them, ”Midnight Moonlight” and “I Know You Rider” I believe. It’s great, because we really have not had the opportunity to do as much playing in New Jersey or on the East Coast as we would like. And certainly not in such a large venue before such a great audience, like Cheese had that night.
That really was a huge thing in the development of the relationship that started up with SCI. I remember first meeting (SCI frontman) Billy Nershi at the Sunshine Daydream Festival in 2004. He was kind of fiddling around and said, “Hey man, you guys wanna do some pickin?” The next thing you knew we were all hunkered down in a little backstage room playing bluegrass for about two or three hours.
Things developed from there. We had a great time sitting in the back room while this festival was going on outside. We kind of fell into our little bluegrass world back there and had a blast. Getting to play with those guys at the Tweeter Center, which is kind of close to our home base, was just wonderful and all the better to help out Rex in the process.
Rex: Recently at your Boulder show, both (Leftover Salmon frontman) Vince Herman and Billy Nershi came out to sit in on a couple of songs. What’s it like to collaborate with all these great musicians?
Skehan: It’s wonderful. Both Billy and Vince bring such a great energy to the show. Billy’s always looking for an opportunity to sit and pick.
As a matter of a fact, I think after we did our two-and-a-half-hour show, Andy Goessling (of Railroad Earth) and Billy sat down on the couch in the dressing room in the middle of the party and just sat there and played four fiddle tunes for each other for like another hour or so. Billy’s always all about “pickin and playin”, and Vince as well. I had no idea Vince was even there that night until I turned around at one point on stage and there he was walking out with his guitar. It’s just a blast; it makes things very fun for us to be able to collaborate like that.
Again, just kind of by random chance before the tour we had been just toying with a great old John Hartford song, “Up on the Hill Where They Do the Boogie”, and it was kind of working out. We weren’t sure if we were going to do it. We said, “All right, let’s just hang on to it, now we know it in case Vince ever happens to show up”. That’s something he used to do with Salmon. And then he came out! “Well, here he is, let’s go!”
Rex: There’s quite a bit of new material being played on this tour. Are the new songs taking on any transformations in the live setting?
Skehan: Well, yeah, little by little. You never really know until you get it out and play it for a few nights and things do start to kind of grow. Or you find out where it fits at the show and how far you can take it. Little by little they’re coming along. That’s one of the great parts about touring, being able to test out material like that.
They may end up in a completely different place by the end of the trip, you never know. Especially with so many of the instrumental things; the fiddle tunes, they take some time to live with before you really get it down. Which is fun too, because then you have a little challenge to work on as you go.
Rex: Many of the tunes you write for the band are instrumentals. Can you explain a little bit about that process of coming up with a new instrumental?
Skehan: A lot of times, for me, I’ll get something in my head and be able to hopefully bring that to the instrument. Other times, we’re just sitting and playing; you’re trying to get in a place where you’re just playing freely, and then something catches your ear and starts to take shape, and sometimes they just turn into a tune on their own. Other times, there may be something I’m looking for in a challenge of the instrument, trying to find something that I can stretch myself on and bring to the band as a little workout. Some tunes just become fun little fiddle tunes.
Ultimately, for me it’s more about the suggestion of an idea, because all the players in the band bring so much to it. Things can take on such a new life once the band gets their hands around it.
Rex: You have developed a positive fanbase that spreads the word about the band at every chance they get. Why do you think your fans have such a connection to your music?
Skehan: One of the things that I find is very positive, and I hope the audience does too, is that there’s a sense of interaction in that we try to mix it up and do different things from night to night, whether it’s older material or new things that we’re bringing in. We try to take some chances and stretch ourselves as far as improvising. I hope, or would like to think anyhow, that this is valued by our fans, in that it gives them a sense of being a part of something that’s immediate and only happening right then and there, as opposed to being the same thing you can hear on any night, or something that’s the same as on our record. It gives the audience a sense of being a part of something.
That’s the great thing that live music is, that experience, you’re sharing it with the musician, by hearing what they’re doing in the moment.
Rex: What are you excited to play or see this summer?
Skehan: We’re looking forward to going back to Wakarusa Wakarusa Music & Camping Festival, that’s always a fun festival in Kansas. This is going to be our first trip to the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival; should be a lot of fun, of course.
We actually have more new festivals this summer than we’ve had in the past. We’re going to be going up to northern Michigan for DuneGrass (Sleeping Bear Dunegrass & Blues Festival), and just recently we came to find out that we’re actually heading out to the Fuji Rock Festival in Japan. That should be quite unlike anything else we’ve ever experienced. I don’t think anybody in the band has been to Japan before; it’s going to be really new.
Rex: RRE have developed quite a reputation in San Francisco, having Phil Lesh play with you at the Independent, playing with Phil & Friends at the Warfield, and being involved with the Rex Foundation. What do you think about the legacy that you’re creating in this city?
Skehan: We’ve always had a really positive response from San Francisco, from some of our earliest gigs at small clubs and bars in the first few months of the band getting out on the road. It’s been very affirming for us. We always look forward to getting into San Francisco; it’s always been a high point of any tour for us. Aside from a great audience, things like running into Phil, it seems like great things happen in San Francisco no matter what.
I have to say, I think there’s something, especially on the West Coast and centered around San Francisco, which is somewhat unique, in that people really make live music a big part of their lives out here. You find that all across the country of course, but especially from Colorado on westward and particularly throughout California. People really devote a lot of their time and energy to the sacrament of live music; they want to go out and participate and hear music. They design their weekends, their vacations and everything else around it.
“I hope that [the fact we mix things up when we play live] is valued by our fans, in that it gives them a sense of being a part of something that’s immediate and only happening right then and there, as opposed to being the same thing you can hear on any night, or something that’s the same as on our record”. John Skehan