Various Artists/American railroad/BMG
Four out of five stars
Credit Carla Olson, a former Americana enthusiast, for bringing together an all-star ensemble to pay tribute to her lifelong love of Americana trains. Her connection began as a child when she walked along train tracks on her way home from school and then listened to the distant sounds of train engines as they made their way to their distant destinations late into the night. night.
Considering the cast of contributors, it seems she wasn’t the only one who found this fascination with railroads. Other participants include John Fogerty, Dave Alvin, Rocky Burnette, Dom Flemons, Stephen McCarthy, Peter Case, Paul Burch, Fats Kaplan, Gary Myrick, Robert Rex Waller Jr., James Intveld, former Byrds bassist John York and Kai Clark, son of Gene Clark, the man Olson frequently collaborated with after his stint with roots-rock pioneers The Textones.
Not surprisingly then, American railroad has the advantage of having a familiarity factor. There are countless classics included here, most of which form the very fabric of classic American folklore. ‘Mystery Train’, ‘This Train’, ‘500 Miles’ and, of course, ‘City of New Orleans’ are taken from this essential firmament and should be well known even to those with a keen interest in American musical tradition. That said, there are also some intriguing choices, including Gary Myrick’s tenacious spin on The Yardbirds’ “Train Kept A’ Rollin,” a brassy, sassy take on CSN’s “Marrakesh Express” by Dustbowl Revival, and Dustbowl Revival’s own revisit. from Olson to Procol Harum’s “Whiskey Train” didactic, which she shares here with longtime Paul McCartney sideman Brian Ray.
Yet the track that best encapsulates this love for these steam engines that roamed the far reaches of the American frontier is the only song written expressly for the album, “Southwest Chief”, Dave Alvin’s tender homage to the railroads from West. Likewise, Dom Flemons’ “Steel Pony Blues,” sung from the perspective of a former slave and Pullman porter, recalls the possibilities that occurred when America’s ancestors walked the rails in search of a better future. Likewise, when Olson and McCarthy express their fondness for those distant memories on the album’s closing track, “I Remember the Railroad,” the sentiment is shared with emphatic intent.
Taken in tandem, this music is both memorable and meaningful. More than just a collection of classic songs, American railroad gives cause for rejoicing.