hat is there to be said about Railroad Earth? It’s one of those bands that thrives just because of its sheer amount of talent. In 2001, the six original band members loosely got together to play some music, rehearsed a little and put out a demo. Practically overnight the band got signed and booked to play the prestigious Telluride Bluegrass Festival before it had even played its first gig. It's that good.
Not that it seems to phase the band, though. Its music is roots based, acoustic. The lyrics speak of a changing landscape, past and present. Yet the sound itself is not easily classified. It’s grassy but has drums; it’s a string band but its amplified. Regardless, after six albums, the band has definitely found its musical niche and a wide fan base.
Railroad’s newest member is bassist Andrew Altman, who joined the band in 2010. Although he fits in seamlessly, that’s not because Altman was a die-hard fan.
“They were kind of off my radar, which actually has been a point of strength for me in the band,” Altman explains. “If you were joining your favorite band, you’re going to already have biases. You’re going to have certain songs you like, maybe others you don’t because you’ve already been listening to that record for 10 years. It’s good, that way I can be more objective. It doesn’t really benefit you to feel like you’re still a fan. You want to be on an even playing field with the other guys.”
Yet perhaps the most exciting Railroad Earth news is that the band has finished its seventh album, and is expecting to drop it this summer. Recorded in its home state of New Jersey, the new album will mark the first time the band releases its music independently, without a label. To Altman, not having the pressure from a label opened the doors for creativity.
“We haven’t set on a name yet; we have a couple names kicking around,” he said. “No other details per se, except that this one is quite a collaborative effort. It was nice because we set up in the studio without having any songs picked, you know. It was just like ‘Alright lets plug in instruments and the amps and drums and … OK, now what?’”
A big part of Railroad’s strength can be attributed to songs by front-man Todd Sheaffer. While Sheaffer largely handles lyrics, the song-writing process remains collaborative, Altman said.
“It’s been different the last two records,” he said. “The self-titled one — which really, there’s a label behind that one — it was ‘Alright give us your best songs’ kind of thing. There were people putting pressure on Todd to bring in all this stuff. But this one’s going to be better; we’re doing it all ourselves.”
As with many artists, to truly experience Railroad Earth, you have to see it live. The band works hard to keep fans guessing and entertained. To Altman, the setlist isn’t driven by location, or by fans at all.
“It’s driven by the flow,” Altman said. “You want to do it, there’s two things, you want it to flow nicely, but you don’t want to be predictable either. So when we’re putting it together, at least two or three points of the night you want to have something that is different or people haven’t heard … So that’s the important thing is an element of surprise but also having a good flow.”
The crowds seem to notice, and with that crazy crowd energy, a Railroad Earth show is never boring. This isn’t the kind of band that rips on its fans.
“Well, they’re super fun I’ll tell you that,” Altman said. “They like to have a good time. There’s no arms folded and smug stares. We’re lucky; we run the gamut in age, which is kind of nice. Everyone from college kids to people who are retired. That’s just a testament to the kind of music we like to make.”
Take for instance the fact that the band’s fans are called “Hobos.”
“Actually the funny thing is they picked that name,” Altman said. “I forget how it happened, earlier on in the band. I think it happened through a message board or webpage. ‘What are we going to call this group of people?!’ They did this. Someone put out there ‘Let’s have a vote, what do you want?’ So somehow it was totally fan generated, it’s just what they came up with.”