On March 6, 2024

Rockin the Region with Railroad Earth

Railroad Earth makes their long-awaited return to Vermont, all while making their debut at the Parmount Theatre in Rutland. You can catch them this Friday March 8, a rescheduled show from November. The band is in their 24th year, with 25 just around the corner. I’ve seen the band four or so times but the last being in 2018, so it’s long-awaited for me as well. The band takes its name from the Jack Kerouac prose poem “October in the Railroad Earth”. You can find the band under their name on social media like Facebook, Instagram and X (Formerly Twitter) and music sites SoundCloud, YouTube and Spotify. Their website is railroad.earth.

I had the pleasure of speaking with John Skehan who sings in the band and plays mandolin, bouzouki and piano. I first met John at a pre-show BBQ in New Jersey with my friend Glenn Soika, also a friend of theirs, before they opened for Hot Tuna at the Stone Pony in Ashbury Park in July 2005. I also met John’s mom, who attended that show and many others. John said, “She’s 95 now. She’s not getting out to as much shows as she once did, for obvious reasons. She and I have both been super blessed because people like Glenn and so many others in the Hobo community have done so much for her, more than I have, like getting her out. She’s ‘Mother Earth’, she’s become her own little celebrity in that fanbase for sure. Back in the day, not even for a RRE show, she would go see Hot Tuna on her own. She would say, “I talked to Jorma, he says Hi.” It’s weird when your mom says stuff like that. If your mom actually likes your rock ‘n’ roll band, is it still a rock ‘n’ roll band? Perhaps that’s a question for the philosophers.”

Joining Skehan are: Todd Sheaffer – lead vocals/acoustic guitars, Tim Carbone – violins/ electric guitar/vocals, Carey Harmon – drums/hand percussion/vocals, Dave Speranza –upright and electric bass, Matt Slocum – keys and Mike Robinson – banjo/pedal steel/acoustic guitar. In 2018, Railroad Earth bid farewell to founding member and multi-instrumentalist Andy Goessling, who passed away from cancer. They became a seven person band because it took two guys to fill Andy’s shoes. John said, “A lot of changes, some difficult times, especially losing our brother Andy but we try to keep on, keeping on. Andy was a musical Swiss army knife, he played everything, all strings, all woodwinds. Essentially there is no replacing Andy but the new guys we have are all wonderful. It’s a whole new sound but it’s really been gelling.”

The band just finished a two-week run through the Midwest. They prefer their tours now to be in that range. John said in the summer, it’s so many festivals that it’s a lot of back and forth. In the winter they try and do a West Coast tour, Midwest and a run through the Northeast.

Railroad Earth got their start in NJ and have a family oriented fanbase. John said, “We’re super lucky there’s a sense of participation on the side of the fanbase, with the band because we try and make things different every single night, don’t repeat songs from night to night, at least in a  3-4 night run. They make this a part of their lifestyle and plan their vacations, their time around it, going to see a band in a set period of time as opposed to, U2 is coming to town you go and see the show one night and you’re good for the year. The Hobo community has taken on its own identity. It really is an amazing family of people for sure.”

By Phil Clarkin
Railroad Earth will debut in Rutland, March 8 at the Parmount Theatre. The band, which includes John Skehan, formed after playing the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and have recorded eight studio albums and one live album.

Shortly after they formed, they got invited to play the infamous Telluride Bluegrass Festival. John talked about it and said, “We kind of got a fire lit under our asses to go tour nationwide before we were even ready to, or planned on it. We started playing locally around NJ just to get in practice and develop material. In the beginning it was just me, Andy, Todd and Timmy, working on some stuff acoustically. They met someone who suggested they go into the studio so they made a demo of five songs that eventually became the first half of their first album, “The Black Bear Sessions.” He passed that around  and the next thing we knew, we were booked on Telluride and High Sierra in the same summer. Then it came to we better first get a crappy old red van and trailer and a booking agent and try and fill in a bunch of shows. Maybe we should go back in the studio, record another five songs to make an actual record (“The Black Bear Sessions”). We then realized if we were going to be playing every night, we needed about 20 more songs. We started working some of that out, on the road, as we were traveling around the country.”

Earlier I said they prefer two-or three-week tours. That first one to get out to Telluride was eight weeks. They played every little town across the way. John added, “We were cutting our teeth and figuring things out from the get-go, with an album of 10 songs and a bunch more we were trying to learn. It was very much a hit the ground running and see what happens.”

Their catalog consists of eight studio albums plus one live album, “Elko,” a double disc recorded during their 2005 spring tour. They’re currently touring in support of their 2022 release, “All For The Song.” Like many bands, the pandemic changed their lives. They finished that album in 2019, planning on releasing it in 2020. They did the winter tour through the first part of 2020, with the new lineup. John said, “Everything was feeling great. We were starting to play some of the new album and then we all know what happened in March 2020. That was one of those, the band is gaining traction, we’ve got a new record, here we go and then close the curtain for two years.”

They’re now playing everything from that record and hitting the rest of the country they missed in the previous couple of years. They’ve been getting together in-between touring to develop some new material to get out in the coming year. Even though it’s been years, they still need to hit some places. John added, “You have that weird gap in there where everything changed.”

John likes the adventure that goes with these shows. He said, “It’s kind of like what’s going to happen tonight? As much as we meticulously plan everything, we also leave a lot of open room for jams and improvisations. It’s the nature of the band. Everybody communicates and is so tuned in to each other so well, you’re going to get to go someplace new. The best thing overall is that sometimes elusive feeling you get when everything is cooking and the audience is really right there with you, the energy is symbiotic back and forth. That gets us going to new places, taking chances. The fact people respond to that and know they’re taking that journey with you, just makes it all that much more special. It’s that feeling that I don’t know how to describe other than the ‘nice place.’ You kind of lose yourself and forget you’re one person and now part of something bigger, which is rest of the band but also all the people in the room, even if it’s a small crowd. It’s part of a transcended experience and that’s what you’re always jonesing for.”


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