Thursday, November 04, 2004

Railroad Earth

Last August with some friends and family I attended the 3rd annual Floyd Fest, an outdoor musical weekend just off the Blue Ridge Parkway in southern Floyd County Virginia. It is a gathering of the tribe. Having driven some distance and expended some energy setting up camp I was already a bit tired when the music started Friday night. And it had turned cold enough so I quickly wished I had brought long pants and heavier shirts. Anita and I called it a night about ten, returned to the tent, and I quickly fell asleep. Sometime after midnight I awoke. As I tried to fall back asleep I could hear music coming from one of the stages. While it was at least a quarter mile away, behind a grove of trees, I could hear a band just cookin’. Even though the high frequencies and vocals were very faint I could hear some interesting chord changes, drum rhythms, and bass lines. I wondered just who were those guys, listened for a while, and drifted back asleep.

The next morning, even before my constitutional or coffee, I looked in the program for who has been playing. Railroad Earth; never heard of them. Sitting around the breakfast table I mentioned that I had heard an interesting band from my tent in the early morning hours. My niece-in-law Virginia volunteered that she had been at the stage and, yes, they were good, very good. She had not heard of them before either. Looking again at the program I found that they would be playing again that evening in the Dance tent. Plans were made.

That evening as the band set up I noticed that these guys looked like veterans, grownups who had come to play. And play they did! After about the fourth song I ducked out of the tent and bought two RRE CD’s. I didn’t want to chance not taking any of this music home with me. I returned to the dance tent and smiled, swayed, and bounced around until the end of the set.

After returning home Sunday night, tired but very pleased with the weekend, I googled the band, found their web site and learned more. A couple of the band member’s names sounded vaguely familiar. I then remembered a band my wife has never stopped talking about for twenty years. Blue Sparks From Hell played in Blacksburg frequently in the 80’s and Anita must have attached herself to the band in a big way. A few more web searches and I found references to the now disbanded Sparks. Sure enough two members were the same, Tim and Andy. So I walked into the next room and told her that she should have told me she knew two members of RRE. She looked at me like I was crazy. “Blue Sparks, Tim and Andy” I said. After a short pause Anita came as close to levitation as I care to see. “No!” she said. A trip to the computer screen and she was convinced. We had been standing to the side and slightly behind the band. She did not get a good look at them. And it had been almost twenty years.

We saw them again a few weeks later in Charlotte in a small theatre. Anita had a chance to talk briefly with Tim and the show was even better than before. We are now RRE fans and will see them again whenever we can. The Blue Sparks reunite from time-to-time in New Jersey. I expect we will catch them before too long.

So, you ask, what kind of music do they play? Well, the best sort of music, where labels fail. My guess is that they could play just about anything you would like to hear. They are often called a bluegrass jam band. Maybe that is because they feature a mandolin, violin, upright bass, acoustic guitar and frequently a banjo or dobro. But that is not what I hear. I hear an American band. I hear the best of all our musical traditions. And you can dance all you want. I have been listening to music seriously for fifty years now. Believe me, these guys are good enough to transcend labels. They are Railroad Earth.

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