The band Railroad Earth takes its name from a Jack Kerouac poem, “October and the Railroad Earth.” The poem is written in Kerouac’s trademark freewheeling, image-packed, idiosyncratic style. It’s a fitting namesake, since the band has its own freewheeling, image-packed, idiosyncratic style.
Though Railroad Earth, who is set to play with Old School Freight Train on Thursday, Feb. 19, at the Unity Centre for the Performing Arts, is lumped in with other ‘newgrass’ bands, it has its own thing going on. It’s not bad company by any stretch to be mentioned in the same sentence as luminaries such as Old Crow Medicine Show or Yonder Mountain String Band — but it’s not the full picture.
Just what exactly is the music that Railroad Earth plays? It’s bluegrass, sure, but there’s Near Eastern influences in there as well as jazz, Celtic and even a touch of Persian — especially in the violin stylings of fiddle player Tim Carbone, which can be heard on any of the band’s five albums, including 2008’s “Amen Corner.”
“It’s hard to put it into a phrase, of course, when someone asks us to describe our sound,” said Carbone. “I was using the term ‘country and eastern.’ Now, I kind of like to call it ‘trans-Americana.’ I think that kind of speaks to the fact that American music is all things, now. It’s bluegrass and country and blues and jazz and rock, but it’s also Greek and Turkish and Indian and Chinese. It’s literally a melting pot of influences. There are no boundaries.”
Railroad Earth hails from Sussex County, N.J., up in the northwestern corner of the state. Non-New Jersey-ites might be under the impression that it’s all tough guys and thick accents, but Carbone said it’s not surprising at all that a group as versed in traditional music as Railroad Earth comes from the Garden State.
“It’s funny that people sometimes say, ‘How can music like that come from Jersey?’” said Carbone. “But the fact of the matter is that David Grisman is from New Jersey. One of the ultimate newgrass bands from the ’70s, Breakfast Special, was from N.J. It’s not like ‘The Sopranos.’ It’s a pretty diverse state. It’s urban up north, and then it’s incredibly backwoods farther south.”
Newgrass fans are well-connected with one another, and are devoted to their music, as are most of the fans who are part of the greater jam-band scene. People whisper that Railroad Earth reminds them of another band, the ultimate jam band — the Grateful Dead.
“People seem to get the same sort of feeling of community among themselves that they used to get from the Dead. Even though by no means do we try to compare ourselves to them,” said Carbone. “But I think we’re really accessible to people. The whole taper community has really latched onto us.”
Tape-trading, the phenomenon that sprang up around the Grateful Dead, has moved into the 21st century. Technology has progressed so that an avid fan can plug his rig into a soundboard at a show and get a crystal-clear recording of a Railroad Earth performance that he can then download onto his computer. Within a matter of seconds after returning from a show, a fan has a record of the music he just heard. Ah, the marvels of modern technology.
Railroad Earth welcomes fans to record its shows. There’s no hint of copyright issues or record labels freaking out — a band like Railroad Earth flies in the face of those kinds of issues. It’s literally all about the music.
“The first show Railroad Earth ever did, there were three tapers there. There were rumors out about us,” said Carbone. “The tapers that I know, they’re really devoted to getting the best possible sound from their recording. They have thousands of dollars of equipment. They want to get the uniqueness of each show. Each one is like a fingerprint. It’s improvisational in nature, so it’s a little different every time.”
Railroad Earth will play with Old School Freight Train at 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 19, at the Unity Centre for the Performing Arts. Tickets are $22 and are available by calling 948-SHOW. For more information, visit www.railroadearth.com.