Album Reviews

Billy Bragg & Joe Henry

Shine a Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad

Artist:     Billy Bragg & Joe Henry

Album:     Shine a Light

Label:     Cooking Vinyl

Release Date:     09/23/2016


Each year, early in my radio career, I did full three and five hour shows with railroad songs. It seemed so natural, and the allure of these songs just seems to strike a popular chord with so many listeners, because they cut across all forms of roots music. Billy Bragg and Joe Henry took this concept, hardly a novel one, a big step further by actually riding the rails to get a first-hand feel for the romance behind the classic songs they chose for this field recording. Specifically, they took a train from Chicago to Los Angeles and, over the course of the four-day trip, recorded at various stations along the way.

Says Bragg, “Railroad songs provided the bedrock of American popular music, from Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman, to Lead Belly, whose repertoire provided several of the songs for this project. In my country, Lonnie Donegan’s 1956 hit “Rock Island Line” sparked the skiffle craze, inspiring a generation of British teens to pick up guitars and form the groups that invaded America in the ’60s, from the Beatles to Led Zeppelin. Growing up in the UK, I’d always been aware of this tradition, but when I traveled to the US, I was surprised to find how few people look to the railroad as a means of transport. With this project, we wanted to explore the transformative power that the coming of the railroad had on the lives of ordinary people by taking these songs back to the places that inspired their creation. Traveling on the train and recording the songs as we went allowed us to both visit places that were important 125 years ago when the lines were laid, but to also explore the viability of the railroad as a means of transport in the 21st century.”

The liner notes are rich in providing the background and inspiration for the songs. Rather than delve into the particular songs, this overview from the two artists adds perspective on the deeper understanding they were seeking – “In pursuit of such understanding, the two of us followed a very old and seminal rail route originating in Chicago, The Texas Eagle travels south to San Antonio, where it joins the Sunset Limited out of New Orleans and crawls west to Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean. Along the way- on board, upon platforms and in old station halls – we scrambled to make field recordings of songs germane to the enduring presence and influence of trains- tunes that date back to early country blues music and to the folk and country songs that ranged out of and alongside it, and extending to a few from our own early lifetimes that reveal the anomalous authority of the railroad to be fading, even as it remains omnipresent.”

You can probably guess from these descriptions the classics they chose, written by Lead Belly, Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family and others. Jean Ritchie’s “The L & N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” has always been one of my favorites, as well as Woody and Arlo Guthrie’s adaptations of Goebel Reeves’ “Hobo’s Lullaby.” Of course, it seems natural to hear Bragg doing Guthrie material, given his work on his two albums with Wilco. Bragg and Henry perform all of these tunes reverently, and fortunately included a couple of, as they put it, “tunes from our own early lifetimes”; Glen Campbell’s “Gentle on My Mind” and Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain.”

This is as basic as it gets– two folk singers singing together, strumming their acoustic guitars. For additional effect, you’ll pick up some of the train and train station sounds and atmosphere. Their voices meld well together, and the duo injects some of their own nuances and unexpected harmonic touches into these tunes. It’s comfort food for your ears.

– Jim Hynes

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