It might surprise both first-time listeners and devout fans of progressive bluegrass group Railroad Earth that the band doesn't even consider its music bluegrass. At least, that's how the outfit's violinist/vocalist Tim Carbone says. Instead, he compares the New Jersey-formed acoustic band's style to a dish born in New Orleans.
"When the roux is added to something, it becomes something else. Bluegrass is part of the roux," Carbone said.
The multiple flavors that find their way into Railroad Earth's version of bluegrass and Americana music have taken the group down a fast track. Almost immediately after forming in 2001, the band was invited to perform at the prestigious Telluride Bluegrass Festival; it was only the 10th show Railroad Earth had ever played. Carbone said other career highlights, including sharing the stage with Phil Lesh and Friends and performing for thousands of rabid fans at the Fuji Rock Festival in Japan, are still baffling.
Our career has "definitely taken some pleasant and unexpected detours," he said.
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Over the past decade, the band made sure its music had freedom to veer off course. From its debut, The Black Bear Sessions, to its 2010 self-titled studio album, Railroad Earth has let its stellar acoustic instrumentation and bluegrass harmonies be shaded by elements of Celtic, African, jazz, country and rock music, with live shows that have earned a rabid following in the jam-band scene.
"In the scene, they want to have a different experience. Each show is kind of like a fingerprint," Carbone said.
Despite the fireworks that Carbone — along with cohorts Todd Sheaffer (lead vocals, acoustic guitar), John Skehan (mandolin, vocals), Carey Harmon (drums, vocals), Andrew Altman (bass) and multi-instrumentalist Andy Goessling — throw together on stage, Carbone said the meat of Railroad Earth's sound (yep, another cooking reference) is Sheaffer's original melodies and lyrics.
Sheaffer has gained plenty of acclaim among critics and fans for his clever wordplay and ability to make parables out of the mundane. Often, these songs come together as the band rehearses and records while Sheaffer does what Carbone describes as "sing-writing." Sheaffer starts out with a string of guitar chords and fishes out a vocal melody and narrative along the way.
"He's very unique in how he does it," Carbone said. "It's something that is revealed to him."
Whatever has been revealed, it's something Railroad Earth revels in: a taut group of acoustic instrumentalists surrounding a skilled songwriter. It's also just one of many things that keep members like Carbone writing, recording and performing with a fire that doesn't fade.
"I get to do all the music that I like and it makes up the whole that is Railroad Earth," Carbone said. "Yeah, I'm never bored."