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article imageReview: Songs of the American railroad brought to life Special

By Tim Sandle     Sep 27, 2016 in Entertainment
Billy Bragg and Joe Henry have produced a delightful album of American folk and blues songs capturing the spirit of the great American railway. These are old songs, recorded live, for the modern age.
The idea is simple and the results are elegant: take a bunch of American folk songs, some well-remembered, others more obscure, and record them live across the great American railroad, stopping off at different stations with the occasional sound of trains passing, announcement calls and the cluttering of passengers. With this simple concept, Billy Bragg and Joe Henry have produced an album of 13-tracks that are evocative of the finer traditions of U.S. folk music.
The resultant album is called ‘Shine a Light’, drawing a parallel with a train’s light going into a tunnel, the album re-energizes a set of great songs. The songs are recorded as the musicians rode the Texas Eagle and the Sunset Limited, stopping off at various junctures. The album even has a subtitle “Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad.”
Billy Bragg’s music has criss-crossed various styles, from ‘pop’ (as with his 1991 album ‘Don’t Try This At Home’), to rock and folk. By switching variously between acoustic and electric guitars, Bragg’s interpretation of folk music, as well as his own songs, has been very adept at capturing mood and emotion. While most of Bragg’s folk music has been within the English tradition — this includes his solo material, his collaborations with individuals like Eliz Carthy and assembled band projects like The Imagined Village — Bragg has also engaged with Americana. His most notable American projects are the three Mermaid Avenue albums with the band Wilco, which adapted Woody Guthrie's many unrecorded, though fully written, songs.
Joe Henry is a respected music producer, singer-songwriter and writer of songs for other artists (including his wife’s sister Madonna). Henry produced Bragg’s last album ‘Tooth and Nail’ (which was reviewed by Digital Journal).
The standout tracks on the new album are an up-tempo “Rock Island Line” and a similarly exuberant “John Henry.” Bragg and Henry alternate vocal duties on the two tracks and their voices offer an interesting contrast. Henry’s vocals are perhaps closest to Elvis Costello, and Bragg, while retaining his English-Essex accent tinged with an American sounding vocal, sings at a lower level.
Another great track is the Bragg led “Waiting for a Train,” (a song that was performed to great success by Jimmie Rodgers). Here Bragg manages to pull off an effective yodel. Other songs are those associated with travelling musicians like Lead Belly and Guthrie.
There’s also a version of Jean Ritchie’s moving “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” and another that captures the lonely spirit of “In the Pines.”
In summary, the album is very enjoyable but it isn’t a nostalgia trip. The tracks are also not definitive or overly reverential: these are reinterpretations of slices of American history for the modern age.
The album is available now on Cooking Vinyl.
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