So I made a slight miscalculation in my pool timing this morning and there is no lane swim until 4:30pm this evening, so that gives me a little bonus downtime this afternoon to plow through a few more chapters of my book, type out a few more chapters of my own book and, yes, listen to more records beginning with this ‘Shine A Light: Field Recordings From the Great American Railroad‘ by Billy Bragg and Joe Henry.
There isn’t much that a folkie loves more than a train. The images and lore of an engine rolling down the tracks, taking both ticketed riders and boxcar-hopping hobos to new destinations and grand adventures, are staples of American songwriting (including songs made famous by Hank Williams, Leadbelly, The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Glenn Campbell, Gordon Lightfoot and more , both past and present. So it’s no great surprise that two accomplished part-time folkies, Billy Bragg and Joe Henry, would cook up a project like this.
For this album, Bragg and Henry booked a rail trip from Chicago to Los Angeles aboard the Texas Eagle 421 Service, bringing a recording engineer and a portable recording rig with them. At various stops along the way, the duo recorded classic blues, folk, and country songs with railway themes at various train stations and boarding platforms (except for one tune cut at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas, where iconic bluesman Robert Johnson recorded some of his best-known recordings in 1936).
The notion of two studious folksingers singing train songs in train stations, with the murmur of passengers and arrivals in the background, sounds like it could be meant as a joke, or perhaps a bit that got left out of the movie ‘A Mighty Wind‘. In practice, ‘Shine a Light‘ doesn’t sound like a prank, but it often comes off as a project built around a big gimmick, and one that’s only partly successful. From a standpoint of audio or performance quality, it doesn’t seem like much was gained by recording these songs on the run, unless you’ve always wanted to know what these guys would have sounded like as buskers. And while Bragg clearly approaches this material with the utmost seriousness and respect, there’s something curious about hearing such hardcore Americana being sung by a man with a thick Essex accent. Henry possesses a clearer and more pleasing voice, though in moments it’s a touch too sweet for the material, and the chalk-and-cheese blend of Bragg’s and Henry’s voices sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.
However, there’s no arguing that the two men chose material that perfectly suits the theme, like ‘John Henry‘, ‘Hobo’s Lullaby‘, ‘The L&N Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore‘ (my favorite) and ‘Rock Island Line‘ making it a nice, pleasing afternoon of easy listening.
I’m not sure Kelly is completely won over by it, but I sure dig it. I think it’s easily one of the most interesting concept albums of 2016.