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Railroad Earth breaks new musical ground

staff report • Sep 13, 2011 at 4:00 AM

Railroad Earth sings of our nation’s changing landscape and social ills with a commitment reminiscent of Woody Guthrie, while interpolating instrumental timbres that could have been pulled from Celtic or Cajun culture. And as anyone who has caught the guys live will attest, the band’s concerts are imbued with the fire-in-the-belly passion of straight-ahead, blue collar rock ‘n’ roll. Then there is the newest album from the New Jersey sextet, simply called “Railroad Earth,” showcasing nine new selections that draw strength and inspiration from an acknowledgment of a shared past, while also embracing new ideas and celebrating div e r s i t y. Railroad Earth will be a part of this weekend’s Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion lineup. The band will take the Piedmont Stage at 10:15 p.m., Friday. Tickets are $25 for the day. Like its fellow musical travelers, from Bob Dylan and Gram Parsons to Wilco and alt-country chameleon Ryan Adams, Railroad Earth eagerly embraced change in pursuit of an aesthetic breakthrough when it came time to record the new album. “It was time to do something different,” said lead singer, songwriter and guitarist Todd Sheaffer. He and his band mates — violinist Tim Carbone, mandolin player John Skehan, multi-instrumentalist Andy Goessling and drummer Carey Harmon, plus new bassist Andrew Altman — have spent nearly a decade refining their sound and modus operandi. This time, however, the group elected to take some cues from its new artists and repertoire man, Michael Caplan (Allman Brothers Band, Los Lonely Boys, Keb’ Mo’), and change up its game “to get a fresh perspective.” To realize this vision, Railroad Earth enlisted co-producer Angelo Montrone, whose résumé ranges from work with Matisyahu to Natalie Cole. Sheaffer credits Montrone for helping the band know when to scale back and when to forge ahead. “We focused on the arrangements a lot more carefully and honed in on our ensemble playing,” he said. The producer urged the band to draw out the rock elements of its sound, with additional electric guitars and even some judicious distortion, thanks to an arsenal of vintage amplifiers at Montrone’s place. “They’ll probably ban us from the bluegrass festivals,” laughs S h e a f f e r. The record even features some mean and dirty lap steel playing, courtesy of Goessling, which is a first on any Railroad Earth album. Caplan also encouraged the band to highlight one of its most secret weapons. “We have some great singers in this band, and we’ve always had a lot of background singing and harmonizing,” Sheaffer said. “This time we wanted to push it further and utilize that instrument more fully, so we spent a lot of time on the backing vocals.” For more information about Railroad Earth, visit www.rail roadearth.com . To find out more about Rhythm & Roots, visit w w w. b r i s t o l r h y t h m . c o m .

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