Release Date: Sep 23, 2016
Record label: Cooking Vinyl
For those not in the know, that a British punk rock artist and an American-born alt-Americana-slash-jazz musician would be joining forces for a record celebrating some of the most traditional American folk songs would be an odd proposition to consider. Well, it still is, but it’s one with passion and meaning behind it. Billy Bragg and Joe Henry are on a mission with their latest record to release the idea that not only did the times surrounding the foundation of the Great American Railroad mark for a great leap forward in travel for the world, but it also had a fair amount to do with the shaping of popular music structure in both America and Britain to this day.
It's fitting and almost inevitable that English singer/songwriter Billy Bragg and American singer/songwriter and noted producer Joe Henry should do a record together. And it's also fitting that given the interest both of them have long had in American folk traditions, they should record an album of covers of songs made famous by Lead Belly ("Midnight Special" and "In the Pines"), Jimmie Rodgers ("Waiting for a Train"), Hank Williams ("Lonesome Whistle"), and others. In fact, the most modern song on here is the 1967 Glen Campbell tune "Gentle on My Mind." What most of these songs have in common is that they are railroad songs.
Rejoice, trainspotters! Those silver black phantom bikes and Deadhead-stickered Cadillacs can be left to rust: there’s no vehicle whose wheels rumble through the history of popular music quite as loudly as the train. Billy Bragg and the American singer-songwriter and producer Joe Henry certainly knew this when, guitars in hand, they boarded the Texas Eagle for a four-day, 2,700 mile rail odyssey in March this year, travelling from Chicago to Los Angeles. They stopped along the way to record a selection of railroad songs, in waiting rooms, ticket halls and at trackside, and the results – clatter, chatter and snatches of birdsong included – are collected here.
Barking bard and buddy let the train take the strain with Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad The Americana credentials of Billy Bragg are on show for this lively history lesson. Earlier this year he and pal Joe Henry (producer of Bragg’s 2013 album Tooth & Nail), clutching guitars, boarded a Chicago-bound train in LA. Four days and 3,000 miles later they had an album, recorded en route.
There isn't much that a folkie loves more than a train. The images and lore of an engine rolling down the tracks, taking both ticketed riders and boxcar-hopping hobos to new destinations and grand adventures, are staples of American songwriting, both past and present. So it's no great surprise that two accomplished part-time folkies, Billy Bragg and Joe Henry, would cook up a project like Shine a Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad.
Billy Bragg once toured the UK by British Rail, rocking up in cities with guitar in hand and loudspeakers on his shoulders. More than 30 years later, he boarded the Texas Eagle with American singer friend Joe Henry and rode across the US, recording this album of old folk railroad songs on platforms and in waiting rooms along the way. The combination of background sounds and voices from Essex and North Carolina brings a Transatlantic feel to songs steeped in Americana: all weary hobos, Lonesome Whistles and Midnight Specials.
As Billy Bragg vividly articulates in the sleeve notes to Mermaid Avenue Vol. II, the second instalment of his excellent turn-of-the 21st century collaborations with Chicago alt-rockers Wilco which set an archive of lyrics by the legendary Woody Guthrie to new music, the Depression-era Okie “captured the awesome majesty of America’s scenery and the dry as dust humour of its working folks” by travelling the nation “with a newsman’s eye for a story and a collector’s ear for a song. ” That abiding fascination with the vast open spaces of the USA also fuels Shine A Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad, as the veteran Essex folk-punker this time teams up with Grammy Award-winning songwriter Joe Henry to re-interpret a dozen train-themed roots tracks by Hank Williams, Lead Belly, The Carter Family and more.