The Time Railroad Earth's Todd Sheaffer Took Guitar Lessons From Dave Van Ronk
Photo G. Milo Farineau
"Have you ever heard the Paul McCartney story of 'Yesterday,' where his original lyrics were 'Scrambled Eggs'?" Todd Sheaffer, having stumbled on a better way to describe his songwriting process, asks. "If you sing it, it makes sense." So I join him in singing a bit and he smiles, "It's kind of the same for me."
Sheaffer, the vocalist and lead guitarist for the band Railroad Earth, takes his time when speaking, deliberate with his words and somewhat meditative; it's to everyone's benefit that his mind has space to wander. The songs Railroad Earth craft are collaborations between all six members of the band, but they're largely drawn out of Sheaffer's sketches, of moments passed and brief recordings captured on his cell phone.
See also: Inside NYC's Burgeoning Folk Scene
"I sing something that shapes the mouth and flows in a lyrical kind of way," he elaborates, describing his style, "You're writing lyrics and then discovering the ideas that are in the song as you go."
Railroad Earth's latest album, The Last of the Outlaws, is the next phase in the group's particular brand of storytelling, and it debuted strong, earning the band the Billboard moniker "heatseekers." Thirteen years and this, their seventh studio album, is finally generating some heat. That's the natural result of a larger and extremely devout fan base, but it's also a testament to the album: Railroad managed to find the middle ground between what they're known for live and what they're capable of creating in a studio.
Railroad Earth have an archived network of their live shows that's only a few years away from being as comprehensive as Phish.net, and a fanbase that follows them from coast to coast. Combine that with their penchant for improvisation and their long, winding sets, and it makes sense that they're often defined as a jamband, though it's more of a critical cliche to write that they defy any one genre altogether. When it came to Billboard, the album was classified as folk.
Sheaffer's style of songwriting, and the band's use of classical instrumentation to achieve a modern sound, makes folk the most inclusive descriptor. It captures the bluegrass-band-with-Celtic-influences-and-improvisation-by-way-of-the-Grateful-Dead just fine, but it also hints at the melodic nature of their music, as well as the down-and-out grit. Railroad Earth are foremost an American band, well versed in blues and Rock 'n Roll, and--with the addition of Andrew Altman on bass--can even offer a hint of the late night womp that draws people to electronic music.
Last of the Outlaws is in a way Railroad's most ambitious unveiling to date: the songs weren't in their live rotation, the band explored new approaches (including a lot more piano courtesy of mandolin virtuoso John Skehan), and of course, there's the 21 minute suite ("All That's Dead May Live Again/Face With a Hole") that destroys the adage that a band who jams can't carry it into the studio.
"It's the first time we've kind of explored that as an album idea," explaines Schaeaffer. "Creating improvisational sections between songs, between set musical pieces." The suite has multiple sections and multiple instrument changes (I lost track of how many times multi-instrumentalist Andy Goessling switched it up), and it's a testament to the band's skill level that they were able to create it on an album. It feels essential that the studio let in a lot of sunlight.
I met Sheaffer in Philadelphia, on the second evening of the Railroad's two-night run at Union Transfer. Over the course of the weekend they played eight of the album's nine tracks, including the full suite, to a crowd that skewed young the first night, and older the second. The weekend covered a lot of the facets of Railroad Earth's music, from their ability transition with extended instrumentals, to covers that they manage to make their own. They maintain a frontier appeal that's countered with sentimental ballads that swell the heart, especially come Valentine's Day.
The one song from the album Railroad didn't play live in Philadelphia was "Hangtown Ball," an anthem for the band's annual Hangtown Halloween Ball in Placerville, California. Placerville in 1849 was so infamous for lynching that it was known as Hangtown. Sheaffer paid a visit to the El Dorado County Historical Society when writing the song, in order to flesh out that rich history. Consequently, the song rings with the ghosts of some of those whose lives ended in the Hangtown noose (though it also includes a few high school friends and a restaurant near Sheaffer's New Jersey home).
A graduate of Columbia University with a joint degree in Political Science and English, Sheaffer and I ended up talking just as much about the album as the seven years he spent living in New York. Railroad Earth is set to play their third consecutive show at the Best Buy Theater this Saturday, but Sheaffer was playing downtown clubs in Manhattan while he was still in college. Over the course of his career, he guesses he's played some 65 different venues in the city.
At one point he brings up Inside Llewyn Davis, which he has yet to see, but knows is based loosely on the Greenwich Village musician Dave Van Ronk and his story.
"I answered an ad in the Village Voice when I was in college," Sheaffer says, "I wanted to learn finger style guitar playing, folk blues, that kind of thing. So I looked through the ads in the V illage Voice and I found one that sounded like what I was looking to learn. I called it up and this gruff voice said, 'Come on down, I live in Sheridan Square.'"
Sheaffer remembers taking lessons from "a character" in an apartment where "every wall was covered in records." He only took three or four lessons before his teacher disappeared, and only later did he find out that he had gone on tour in Europe. "He never bothered to tell me, or forgot to tell me," Sheaffer concludes, "and this was Dave Van Ronk."
Later, when Sheaffer was playing second guitar and singing harmonies with Jack Hardy--who passed in 2011 but was a staple of the Village and the New York folk scene--he had another encounter with Van Ronk. He had finished playing a show with Hardy, and Van Ronk, Irish whiskey in hand, began to praise his guitar style, ignorant of the fact that Sheaffer had only recently been his pupil.
I ask about his early influences during those days spent hanging around downtown, and though they of course include Bob Dylan, it is Jack Hardy that Sheaffer continuously circles back to. It was with Hardy that his professional career began, and one of Hardy's tunes, "Dover to Dunkirk," is a staple of Railroad Earth's live show.
Though Sheaffer's connection to New York City is undoubtedly an influence--especially when certain words of his float down as you rush through Soho ("To the room on Houston street/ Where the pawn poets would meet")--his prose seems to be more at home at the land's end, that ethereal space where history meets eternal emotion. His lyrics are part storytelling and always poetic, and on this latest effort it's the title track, sparse and slow, that epitomizes that.
"The Last of the Outlaws," written with drummer Carey Harmon, was originally "The Last of the Cowboys," but that was never going to work. Then it was "The Last of the Apaches," because Sheaffer was familiar with the story of Geronimo, one of the last Native American holdouts that fought being reigned into a reservation, but that too seemed overly specific. It became "The Last of the Outlaws" because that was the most resonant image.
"It's written from the perspective of people worried about somebody, and concerned about somebody and missing somebody," Sheaffer explains, pausing to let the words take hold, "The stories have to come from the inside out, not from the outside in."
That image of longing, of nights spent away, of love, of history, of responsibility, and all the weight those feelings carry with them, speak for the entire album. From the upbeat "Chasin' a Rainbow"--that dances with Tim Carbone's fiddle playing--to my personal favorite, "When the Sun Gets in Your Blood," the album never stops looking West. The Last of the Outlaws carries with it the tension that modernity poses for those who find solace in the image of the train. A hobo's life, after all, is lived on the open road. Railroad Earth perform Saturday, Feb. 22 at Best Buy Theater
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