Barking-born Billy Bragg has, like many British artists before him, made no secret of his love for Americana. In 1998, the 58-year-old veteran of various left-wing causes released Mermaid Avenue, a critically acclaimed album that put music to previously unheard lyrics by perhaps his greatest idol, Woody Guthrie.
Set for release on Cooking Vinyl on September 23 2016, his latest tip of the hat to that timeless, uniquely American sound, Shine a Light, is a 13-track collection of railway-themed songs recorded during a 65 hour journey across the US on the Texas Eagle train service.
Joining him on this journey (physical and musical) was Joe Henry, a 55 year old industry veteran from Charlotte, North Carolina. Joe last worked with Bragg when he acted as producer on his friend’s 2013 album, Tooth & Nail.
Getting things underway is a slowed down, bluesy version of “Rock Island Line,” written in 1929 by Clarence Wilson and introduced to UK audiences in 1956 when skiffle legend Lonnie Donegan took it to number eight on the UK charts.
“The Midnight Special” is a traditional folk song, the best known version of which is probably Lead Belly‘s 1934 effort. Again, it’s a thoughtful, stripped down duet that adds to the reflective tone of the record.
The duo turn in a masterful performance of Hank Williams’ “Lonesome Whistle,” with Bragg singing low while Henry yodels over the top. The memory of another country legend, Jimmie Rodgers (the ‘Singing Brakeman’), is kept alive quite splendidly on the sombre “Waiting for a Train.”
The aforementioned Lead Belly also cut “In the Pines” (as did The Louvin Brothers) and Bragg and Henry, once again clearly in their element, more than do it justice.
Glen Campbell put out a sublime version of “Gentle on My Mind” in 1967 and it’s well done here, although I have to say I prefer the more upbeat tempo of Glen’s. No Billy Bragg album of this type would be complete without a Woody Guthrie piece and it duly comes in the form of “Hobo’s Lullaby.”
“Railroading on the Great Divide” was originally recorded by The Carter Family in the early 1950s and this time Bragg’s vocals take centre stage, adding depth and feeling while Henry provides harmony. The final track is Gordon Lightfoot‘s “Early Morning Rain” and it’s a suitably downbeat signing off.
This subtle, thought-provoking labour of love from two singer/songwriters passionate about the music and subject matter they’re celebrating will definitely please fans of classic Americana, as well as those who might be curious to learn more about a long-forgotten way of life.
Shine a Light will be available to buy or download from September 23.
To learn more about Billy Bragg and Joe Henry, go here.