Railroad Earth is making late-winter tracks for Tahoe, heading to Squaw Valley for a Saturday, April 2, appearance at the WinterWondergrass festival.
Named after Beat poet Jack Kerouac’s short story “October in the Railroad Earth,” the jam-grass group is Todd Sheaffer (vocals, guitar), Tim Carbone (fiddle, electric guitar, vocals), John Skehan (mandolin, bouzouki, piano, vocals), Andy Goessling (guitar, banjo, dobro, mandolin, lap steel, flute, pennywhistle, saxophones, vocals), Carey Harmon (drums, percussion, vocals) and Andrew Altman (bass). The band came together in early 2001 in Stillwater, New Jersey.
“We had all known each other and been in different bands in many cases together over time, either working together in regular projects or just ending up in the studio together as sidemen,” Skehan said. “Then we found ourselves kind of coming together, as legend has it, at a party at Andy’s. Todd had been kind of whetting an interest in bluegrass, and had some new songs that he had been working on that lent themselves to an acoustic instrumentation.”
The group decided to record an initial demo album and send it out to promoters around the country.
“Without knowing what to expect, we got a couple of pretty strong reactions which led to deciding, well, let’s buy a crappy old van and put a tour together and head out on the road,” Skehan said.
That initial demo landed Railroad Earth gigs at both Telluride Bluegrass Festival and High Sierra Music Festival on the group’s first tour, a heady reception by any measure. The band ended its first tour at High Sierra, its debut in an ongoing run of California appearances.
“We have kind of a long, long history with Northern California and festivals there,” Skehan said. “That kind of got us all going to continue to develop this music and add more songs to that demo and eventually release it as our first album, called ‘The Black Bear Sessions.’”
Now, 15 years later, Railroad Earth is going full steam. Last year saw the band release an album with Allman Brothers and Gov’t Mule guitarist Warren Haynes, “Ashes and Dust,” and hit the road in support of the album for a series of spring and summer tours.
“It was great to be playing with Warren,” Skehan said. “We would do our own set and then get up and play with him, a bunch of the material from the record and then, of course, some Warren Haynes’ Allman Brothers classics, and some things that we just came up with on the spot.”
Joining forces with a rock and blues guitarist might not sound like the right direction for a string band, but then, Railroad Earth ain’t exactly your average bluegrass band.
“It’s essentially a rock band, but it’s made up of bluegrass instruments, acoustic instruments, but not really trying to play bluegrass,” Skehan said. “We’re all amplified and plugged in and we have drums; therefore, not bluegrass in your traditional sense, but a band that’s centered around the songwriting of Todd Sheaffer; the tone of his songwriting, meaning lyrics and melody that, to me, I think very much touch on that American landscape, that broad range of musical styles and stories that have been lumped into the term Americana now.
“You can’t really hear it without feeling the Old West, or trains, or just the great majesty of this country and the diversity of it. There’s something rootsy and somewhat folksy about it, but it’s not necessarily recreated or derivative folk music. It’s something new but has that old sound I guess.”
Winter Wondergrass marks the start of the spring and summer tour season for the band. Railroad Earth is looking forward to a tour run with its pals from Greensky Bluegrass, which will co-headline the Squaw Valley festival. Other upcoming highlights for the group include Delfest in late May, and a September appearance at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado.
Of course, Railroad Earth is always looking ahead to October, when it headlines the Hangtown Halloween Ball in Placerville. The event is entering its sixth year in 2016.
“That’s another tradition we’re looking to keep growing,” Skehan said. “It’s a really fun festival, pretty diverse lineup, and it’s small and comfortable enough. It’s not a bluegrass festival in terms of the lineup, but in terms of the size, and the camping and the mellow family vibe it has that kind of feeling.”
Railroad Earth included a nod to the event on its most recent studio album, “Last of the Outlaws,” in the tune “Hangtown Ball,” written by Sheaffer.
“It’s all about folks who met their unpleasant end out in Hangtown in the Old West days,” Skehan said with a chuckle. “He’s got some historical names that he researched and then he’s got some names from our old scene, old high school friends and restaurant owners.”
Between Hangtown Halloween and frequent appearances at venues such as the Tahoe Biltmore and Crystal Bay Casino, Railroad Earth’s affinity for Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada runs deep.
“Crystal Bay has been a lot of fun, especially because they have a really nice stage and a good sized room,” Skehan said. “It’s always a great turnout; it’s got a fun kind of ‘Fear and Loathing’ vibe. You see a bunch of hippies and partiers suddenly turned loose at a casino.”
Railroad Earth is also hoping to get into the studio before long.
“We are kind of waiting to carve out what kind of time we can over the next portion of the year to dig in and start working on some new music,” Skehan said. “We’re always kind of working on things as we go, especially along the road, changing things up and adding new pieces here and there.”
When: April 1-3
Where: Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows
Headliners: Railroad Earth and Greensky Bluegrass