Railroad Earth returned in 2014 with Last of the Outlaws, the band’s seventh full-length and one that aims to stake their claim as an alpha dog in the current Americana Folk-Pop scene. For a group who’ve always been difficult for journalists to place inside a stifling genre box, Last of the Outlaws proves to be the group’s most direct artistic statement yet, placing them within striking distance of the commercial success enjoyed by acts far their lesser. But few of these in-vogue outfits have the experience or mileage on the road that RRE has accumulated in well over the course of a decade.
“We’ve been together for 12 years now,” states Todd Sheaffer, singer, guitarist and the band’s chief songwriter. “We started out playing a more string-oriented bluegrassy style and this album is perhaps the biggest departure we’ve had since that starting point. It’s just a natural development; it hasn’t been influenced by anything in particular. We’ve always just done our own thing. We were around when the big bluegrass craze hit, which started with O Brother Where Art Thou, and we’d make records and people would accuse us of getting in on the whole bluegrass fad. No, we were just playing the music we play. Then that came and went, and here we are still playing. Now there’s this folk-pop craze, and our music always had elements of folk-pop in it. But we’ll still be around playing Railroad Earth music after all this, because that’s what we do.”
The origin of Outlaws is rooted in Railroad Earth’s own backyard of Sussex County in the most rural part of New Jersey. It was there in a town called Knowlton, where mandolin player John Skehan went to a house to answer an ad about a piano for sale. Once he stepped inside, he realized he was where RRE would be making their new album. “The house is set back from the road, so you don’t really see it,” describes Sheaffer. “But it’s something to see. When he built the house, he made this big room with a studio in mind.”
“We started talking about recording and I said, ‘Well I know this space and it’s big enough where we can all set up and play,’” Skehan explains. “Tim [Carbone – violinist] went there, checked it out and talked to the owner, Dean Rickard, and he turned out to be just the nicest guy in the world and he really became an important part of the equation for this album.” John wound up passing on purchasing the piano, but its old keys can be heard prominently across the scope of Last of the Outlaws, as he flexes his chops on the instrument he learned before switching to the strings. “It wasn’t exactly intentional at first, but we wound up with a fair bit of piano on the record,” he admits. “We were trying new stuff out and it was there, so we figured we’d see what happens.”
Last of the Outlaws also features the most adventurous and experimental piece in the RRE canon yet, a 21-minute-long suite comprised of seven movements (“All That’s Dead May Live Again”, “Introit”, “Tuba Mirum”, “Lacrimosa”, “Dies Irae,” “Face with a Hole” and “In Paradisum”) and designed after what Sheaffer says is a kind of requiem mass. “That’s the shape it kind of took,” Skehan explains. “It came down to an after-fact for me trying to come up with names for some of the instrumental sections because I’m really bad at naming things like that (laughs). But after it came together we were thinking about how the themes relayed between the two songs that bookend all the other movements. It occurred to me that there was a strong theme of death, but also the hope of rebirth. It got me to thinking along the lines of a mass and that if I look through some of the actual titles of movements in a requiem mass, some of them might fit or reflect the mood of some of the instrumental portions. I read through the translations of the Latin and realized that, even though they’re meant to be sung, these kind of relate and fit together between the opening and closing themes.”
Last of the Outlaws also includes such standout tracks as “Chasin’ A Rainbow”, “One More Night On The Road,” and the album’s gorgeously soulful title cut, “The Last of the Outlaws,” a trio of tracks that perhaps stand as some of the most straightforwardly “No Depression”-esque material the Earth have committed to record yet. These tracks may have more in common with Americana bands like The Jayhawks or Wilco than much of RRE’s back catalog, but they still maintain that musical-conversation style of playing that makes their sound so unmistakable. Some of the album’s edge was no doubt bolstered by mix engineer, Ted Hutt, best known for his work with such groups as the Dropkick Murphys, The Gaslight Anthem and the Bouncing Souls, as well as great acoustic music like Old Crow Medicine Show and Audra Mae.
“It certainly is the most rock approach that we’ve taken on an album,” admits Sheaffer. “I just wrote what I wrote and we played it the way we felt made sense.” Adds Skehan, “We never really set out to be just an acoustic band from the get go. But in playing live, we all began experimenting with rock ‘n’ roll rigs, amps, pedals and effects and for these acoustic instruments. Todd has always had a very unique guitar tone because he plays a Martin acoustic, but through delay and overdrive. Tim’s violin cuts through almost like an electric guitar. Taking these bluegrass string instruments and treating them like a rock band is really cool.”
And while RRE may not be looking for any kind of crossover appeal, Last of the Outlaws is just too good of an album to be ignored. But regardless of where the next step in the evolution of this band takes them, the strong and loyal following Railroad Earth have established these twelve years, and over 1000 concerts, will remain unshakable in their assurance of keeping the group in the game for the long haul. “I feel that Railroad Earth has a longevity that transcends whatever ‘of-the-moment’ frenzy there happens to be, and our fans are always there for us.” Sheaffer asserts. “We’ve played on bluegrass festivals. We’ve played rock festivals. We’ve played hippie festivals. We’ve played traditional festivals. It doesn’t matter. Our music encompasses all those things and it still is just Railroad Earth music.” [Ron Hart]