Because of access, variety, and, in many cases, repetition, music is the one artistic vehicle in which all of us can engage. I do realize that making this statement is not sensitive to such dynamics as culture and socio-economic status, but I’m not trying to publish in some psychological journal or in your daily rag. It’s a blog post, and dadgummit -– If I want to appear closed-minded to the twos and threes of readers that visit this site every day, then pardon me while I hang this wall-sized poster of my constitutional rights.
Anyway. I’m pretty open-minded about music. That is, I like a variety of genres. I like to mix it up, keep the proverbial iPod on shuffle, if you will. The other end of that note, however, is that I’m also pretty closed-minded about music. That is, I don’t like several genres, and I don’t like a number of artists. Some I even hate. I have, in several instances, irritated friends and loved ones to nearly immeasurable levels of annoyance and frustration. And the reason for this is simple: The experience one has when enjoying a piece of music is impossible to replicate for another human being. The trouble is that some of us are too stubborn to admit that, and we will go to our grave trying.
Simply put, I feel passionate about music. Music has brought me some of my greatest joys, and I have, on occasion, even shed some joyous tears.
Now, there are different aspects about music that I love. Some occur simultaneously. Some do not. I can rock out to the loud, simple-chord progressions and smutty lyrics of AC/DC. I’m occasionally in the mood to lower my drawers, move my arms in specific patterns and get my Snoop Dogg on. I will geek out to particular house/trance/techno beats, and I’ve been known to roll up the cuffs of my overalls and have a ho-down to some bluegrass. Sometimes I like the beat. On other occasions it’s the rhythm, and I can be a fiend for some good lyrics, too. There is no recipe for a great song. It can have any assortment of ingredients. I might air guitar every note of Rush’s La Villa Strangiato and pound my steering wheel with every hit of the high hat, and five minutes later holler “B-A-N-A-N-A-S” along with Gwen Stefani.
I will say, though, that there’s something to be said for the tune that has both phenomenal musical craftsmanship and thought-provoking lyrics. That doesn’t mean that a song that has both is automatically better than one that does not, but it’s an impressive specimen when accomplished, and we will shortly focus on a particular example.
Fascinating statement of the obvious: The human mind is cranking out thoughts with greater frequency than we can track.
Now, if your mind is like mine, these thoughts are somehow categorized, and those categories seem to rotate in and out the skull’s vault.
Statement of the non-obvious that may be fascinating to me and only me: I’ve been moderately obsessed in recent months with the notion of the history of human behavior. Were I independently wealthy and a massive nerd (Editor’s Note: Hey! I’m battin' .500.), I would strongly consider doing some extensive research about the topic. But this business seriously blows my mind.
Take hunger (Note: A lot of my human-behavior ponderings probably reach back to caveman times.), for example. In the beginning, how did people determine what the solution was to satisfying your appetite, your need to subside. Were people standing around being like, Man we are so dang hungry (Note: Actually, they probably said, We are so dang something. Should we figure out the word for it first, or the solution to it first?), what should we do? Let’s make a list: Defecate? Nah. Make tally marks on the wall to notate the passing of days? Don’t think so. Have intercourse? Hmm-mmm. Shape a stone into a point, attach it to a stick, drive it through the heart of that woolly mammoth, then skin and gut it, and chew its flesh? You know you might be on to something there.
Or eggs. What was it like when people realized they could get eggs from chickens? And eat them. Or how about the guy that discovered that eggs could be fried and topped with bacon and cheese? Or the woman (Note: See, I can at least be gender sensitive.) that discovered that eggs could be made into a batter to bread and fry the chicken that laid them? Even nuttier: The person that first played around with separating whites from yolks and whipping them into stiff peaks, then folding them back into each other to be baked into a delicate soufflé? Ingenious.
There’s one thing I imagine we all think about to some degree: technology. The world has become a crazy place. I mean, I had a hard time making the transition from cassette tapes to compact discs. And when I say “hard time,” that’s just me being nice and not labeling myself stubborn again. But I was. Ridiculously. And then there’s the whole cell phone thing. Shockingly, I was against them for a spell and now, today, I’m one of those people that would get 85 percent of the way to work and actually need to turn around and go home for my phone if I forgot it because my day would be that much of a catastrophe without it. And the e-mails, the Twitters, the Facebooks, the Google searches. All of it. These things that technology has given us are equally amazing and frustrating.
Occasionally, when technology is in the current-thought cycle, I find myself channeling my ancestral self, stripping away the elements of modernism, and, believe it or not, I can totally see my future self, old and retired, living on a farm way out in the sticks, being self-sufficient, and spending most of my waking hours on a tractor. I have no idea what that’s about, but it’s probably tied into the never-satisfied continuum of needing a vacation from yourself. But it’s there. It’s vivid, and my brain has me convinced that, even though the possibility of going stir-crazy while actually being the polar opposite of self-sufficient seems monumentally high, I think I could tolerate it. That I’d enjoy it. The peace and quiet, the distance from (Note: Fire up the cliché machine.) hustle and bustle, the amazingly low frequency of running into dysfunctional people. It sounds terrific.
Technology has, however, garnered me massively addicted to itself, so I would, of course, need: a high-speed Internet connection, impeccable cell-phone service, and a television package that allowed me to view my shows, my stand-up comedy, my sports broadcasts, and I would still want my NetFlix to be delivered in a timely fashion. So, what can you do?
Since I mentioned my tractor, though, I’ll just throw it out there that transportation is another thing that makes the inner rounds. I think about the pioneers. I try to wrap my brain around the idea of moving west over terrain, through the Midwest winters and summers, and just straight-up trying to get where you’re going without dying. You know: horses and covered wagons. Wearing the same clothes for weeks and months. Praying that your shoes hold out. Shivering yourself to sleep at night. Conducting your day from dawn to dusk. And then the progressions since then, the planes, trains, and automobiles, if you will. I don’t fly a lot, but I’m aware that there are plenty of people in the world that spend a significant amount of time each week on an airplane.
I know that there are many examples of professionals that fly a ton, but look at baseball players for one: One hundred sixty-two games a year for 30 different teams that all have 24-man rosters, trainers, front-office people, and equipment guys. That’s a lot of sky mileage. Or, how about over-the-road truck drivers? These guys cover some serious ground to bring the canned goods to our grocery-store shelves, our sneakers to the mall, our Amazon-ordered gifts and novelty purchases. Is it weird that our society has become so technologically advanced, yet we are still massively dependent on ground transportation? I think so.
But it’s not the 18-wheelers or the 747s that I want to focus on. It’s the trains. The steam engines. The locomotives. The mighty, mighty railroad. Think for a minute about the time, the money, the man hours, the raw materials, and the lives it costs to put together a railway. And then you gotta put a train on it, put people and supplies on that train, and then maintain all of ‘em. And think about what an incredible asset it was for a nation to get the thing fully up and functioning. And now what? I mean, what’re we using the railroad for now? I know that people still use them to travel, but I see railroad yards in the community I work in. I even know a guy that works at one. And I see these trains most every day, creeping along, back and forth, in what seems like a space confined to their own rail yard. That is, it sometimes seem like these things don’t ever leave, like they just cruise these trains from one end of their real estate to the other and back again.
I don’t get it. I’m certain there’s some productivity being generated at these places, but it’s clearly lost on me. This idea, though, brings me back to music. One song in particular. It’s called “The Jupiter & the 119,” and it’s by Railroad Earth. I really dig these guys, and the funny thing is that I have no idea exactly when and where I discovered them, but I’ll make the safe bet and assume it was Wakarusa. Whenever it was though, I purchased their debut album “The Black Bear Sessions” and almost immediately became a better person having heard it. And like bands can tend to do on you when you get old: They kinda got lost in my shuffle for a spell. But it was on our last trip to Durango that they fell back into my lap.
You see, I was revisiting an old college tendency of mine -– spending far more money than I have on CDs at Southwest Sound -– when I discovered that they’d just, one month prior, released their sixth album, a self-titled LP nonetheless. I always find that peculiar: when bands release a self-titled album that is not their first. It is, however, a decent album. It’s got its highs and lows, but most importantly, it’s got the track I mentioned: “The Jupiter & the 119.” Had Railroad Earth consulted me, I would’ve told them that the song title should appear The Jupiter & the 1-1-9 since that’s how it’s sung, but they did not, so here we are. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m way into the notion of being in a relationship with a song. I don’t know that I ever come to any conclusions, or draw up any hard evidence, but I find myself pondering what it was about the initial listen of a particular song that got me to like it.
Without trying to get too meta, it’s probably a lot like human relationships. You identify that you’re attracted to a person, and at some point, you’re likely going to think about what it was that stirred that chemistry. Was it that he made you laugh? Was it something intelligent she said? Maybe an outfit, or some strange coincidence that put you two in the same spot at the same time. Anyway, I don’t know what it was about “The Jupiter & the 119” that hit me first, but here’s a funny thing about me: When I purchase a new album, I have two rules: 1) I am not allowed to skip or repeat any tracks until two complete listens are in the books, and 2) I am not allowed to overplay (usually three to four listens) a new album – so as to ideally avoid immediate burnout on it, and allow it to resume its own, natural spot in the rotation.
With track two on this particular album, I broke my own rule, and I should take this opportunity to remind you that my stubbornness occasionally flirts with an obsessive-compulsive type status. I hate being stubborn, too. Mostly because it suggests that you are inflexible and opposed to change, or maybe even insecure, but I also hate it because my mom, on dozens and dozens of occasions over the years, threw this gem at me: “You’re so stubborn. You’re just like your father.” And if you deduced from that statement that I come from divorced parents, you win a House of Georges t-shirt.
But seriously, when one of my tendencies or practices gets a flat tire or a stick in the spokes (Note: What is this, the bicycle-analogy paragraph?) I feel like I have to make some sort of effort to balance things out, even if I have no idea what the “things” are. I’ve been that way for as long as I can remember, and dealing with yourself on that level is, um, not a comfortable seat to ride home in. Anyway, I broke my own rule, and it must’ve bothered me because I announced both a) the existence of said rule, and b) the fact that I was breaking it, along with c) some sort of subconsciously annunciated note to self: a don’t-break-your-own-rules-again kind of thing to my wife. And I never, ever announce my rules and habits to my wife, because, for most of eight years now, I’ve managed to hide from her the bulk of my insanity, and let’s face it: Disclosure of this sort is just a hair less than necessary.
On this occasion, though, she responded with, “I like that you have that kind of rule.” And believe you me: That is a rarity.
My point, though, is that I have no idea why I broke the rule. I mean, I know I broke the rule because I really dug the tune, but I can’t say what, exactly, it was about the song that I liked. And having given it some thought, I’ve decided that it must’ve been the fact that Todd Sheaffer is never going to win any sort of best-vocalist award, but somehow his voice and my ears were really connecting on this particular occasion. I think that maybe it’s because he really gets after it on this one. You know, from down deep in the diaphragm. I also think that there’s an impossible-to-miss thing happening in this song, and that’s that the song is valued, marketed, and sold on the one thing that embodies that passion we crave in our art. And that thing is a story. Think about it. The most majestic of paintings tell a story, be it a different story to every viewer, or the same story to thousands. The songs we dig tell tales of love, of loss, of accomplishment. And even the greatest writers manage to tell you several intriguing stories within their story.
This is why Sheaffer belts, no fewer than 10 times in the track, “Tell me: Have you heard the story…”
Here’s a funny thing specific to lyrics, general to songs: The first time we hear a song we absolutely love, do we know what the song’s about? I posit that we do not. I mean, when taking in new music for the first time, there’s too much going on. And chances are, you’re not a music critic, so you don’t sit down at your work desk, strap on some headphones, and focus. No. Key, even if they’re random, moments of songs resonate with you when you’re cutting carrots for the salad you’ll have for dinner, or when you’re gulping down water after your run at the gym, or maybe in that fleeting moment before you turn off your engine at the gas pump. But after one listen, maybe you’ve taken away an idea, or a line or two from the track. Or maybe it’s even more general, like, Hey, I think I kinda liked that song, and I’m already looking forward to hearing it a second time.
So you give it a whirl again, and maybe after your third or fourth listen, your opinion has evolved into, Man, I am really into this track. And if you’re anything like me, what follows next looks a little something like, I am totally in love with this song, and I’m going to listen to it repeatedly (Note: Remember, two complete listens are in the books by this point.) until I a) know all the words by heart, b) can hit all the vocal pitches with moderate precision, and c) have become obsessed with playing it for whoever will listen even though those listens aren’t the A+ listens that listening alone while top-of-the-lung wailing are.
My point, though, is that after one listen, I had absolutely no idea what “The Jupiter & the 119” was about. I mean, I knew that there was a story that was all the buzz, and there was probably some train imagery that attached itself to one of those dust mites of the mind, but it was, generally speaking, a surface evaluation, an, I-can-see-myself-liking-that-song sort of observation. And now, having listened to it about 25 times, I find myself getting on my case for not seeing the story more clearly earlier on. But whatever. Let’s talk about the story.
Actually, let’s clarify some things first: I’m not an historian. If we’re not talking about The Kansas City Chiefs Football Club, the band Phish, a small sample size of the literary (Note: It’s Finger-Quote Thirty up in this joint.) classics, or the basics of classic-culinary technique, then chances are I had to look it up, which is precisely what happened in this case. So, yeah: I Googled both the Jupiter and then the 1-1-9. And, sure: You’re all big boys and big girls, so you can do the same thing I did, or you can let me give you the buts and the nolts. If you do choose to look it up, though, you should time how long you are actually engaged in reading either page, and note your seconds in the comments. It can be our own little attention-span experiment that we’ll collectively feel shameful of for, oh, about 12 seconds.
And by the way, I’m in favor of the rule of using the article “an” before words that start with ‘h’, but shouldn’t we, like, asterisk that rule when we’re tweeting or texting or speaking in acronyms? I mean look at this phrase: Shannon Sharpe is not an H.o.F. tight end. Sure. I’m abbreviating because of a) that whole attention-span thing, and b) because of the fact that it’s fun to read. My question, though, is: Where does the fix come in? It doesn’t work any better if you spell it out: Shannon Sharpe is not an Hall of Fame tight end. Does the rule, then, become that, if you’re going to fix it, you have to fix it all the way? Do you have to say: Shannon Sharpe is currently not a candidate for enshrinement in professional football’s Hall of Fame?
Anyway, if you hadn’t guessed by now, both the Jupiter, and the 1-1-9 are, in fact, locomotives. Train engines, as it were. And allow me to assume that, at this point, 99 percent of you tuned out a long, long time ago, so I can do things like get off track (Note: Damn skippy, that pun was intended.) every other sentence, dropping in fun-filled facts. Like this one: The definition of locomotive is: a self-propelled vehicular engine for pulling a railroad train. Now I don’t know about you, but I’d never considered a locomotive as a self-propelled concept prior to looking that up. In fact, I probably never thought of anything other than a lawn mower as self-propelled, but here we are.
Because I can feel your curiosity from here, I’ll give you a few more details, and then we’ll be done with it. The Jupiter was property of Central Pacific Railroad, while the 1-1-9 was owned by Union Pacific. They were a) both steam locomotives, b) classified as the 4-4-0 variety (Note: You’re on your own, there, buddy, ‘cause that’s some eye-glaze material.), and c) freaking gorgeous pieces of machinery. The Jupiter was crafted courtesy of Schenectady Locomotive Works; Rogers Locomotive and Machine Works was responsible for constructing the 1-1-9. They, like Railroad Earth, are from New Jersey, which you may or may not now is a crummy damn city. What basis, you may be asking, do I have for making such a slanderous statement?
Well, none, really. But I do know this: The existence of the New Jersey Devils pisses me off because they started in Kansas City, had a layover in Denver, and finally found a home in En Jay where they, ironically, divorced their losing ways, and started winning Stanley Cups. Also, that “Jersey Shore” show is eight heaping tablespoons of God-awful, and two words for a summarizing capper: Bon. Jovi. But, we’re (Update: We’re looking at the bright side, now.) looking at the bright side of things because art is great and warm and inspirational and so forth, and when it comes down to splittin’ beans, Rogers Locomotive and Machine Works made the 1-1-9 in Jersey, and the frickin’ band that’s singing about their product is, too, so Jersey’s awesome. Jackpot, count it, etc.
The moment you’ve all been waiting for: The two steam engines traversed their respective railways and were stopped, one railroad tie from touching cowcatchers, for nothing more than a celebratory moment known as The Golden Spike ceremony. A party, if you will. I say “nothing more” there, but saying that is awful darn ridiculous, because what they were celebrating was freakin’ epic: the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad.
Have another look at that phrase: First Transcontinental Railroad. Doesn’t that seem like a chapter heading in your Social Studies textbook, one of those reading assignments that makes you wanna pass out, face-down in the print, drooling onto the pages? (Note: How to recognize when you’re packin’ on the years/shedding pounds of coolness: Stuff that was lame to you as a kid is now suddenly cool.) It does. It totally does. This week: First Transcontinental Railroad; next week: exploring the intricacies of the Magna Carta. Great, man. When’s recess, and are they serving pizza today?
That’s quite a concept, though: a railway that goes across the freaking continent. And you know what? They, quite literally, hammered that shit out in six years. Six years!
Can you imagine what kind of time a project of that magnitude would take today? In 2011? Jiminy Christmas. You’ve seen the public works people in your city. It takes them half a week to fill a pothole. We’ve all driven by that scene. We’ve all heard comics rip on them. That pack of seven government-employed workers standing on the shoulder of the street, six of them smoking Winston’s while watching one dude dig a hole. Sure. It’s a tired joke, but it’s still true. And funny. And maybe a little sad, too. But, man. Six. Years. That’s impressive. Now, we’re talking about a song here, and the song is celebrating an impeccable event, one that’s worth all of the staged photogapharia, champagne toasts, and spike-driving imagery you can imagine, but there are some tidbits about this little shindig that are…Well, let’s just call them downright American:
1) The Jupiter was not originally intended to be part of this historic day. A locomotive called the Antelope was, only it got destroyed. By some workers. Who rolled a log down a mountain and smashed it.
2) Neither was the 1-1-9. The Durant Special was supposed to be featured in the festivities, but its conductor was afraid to locomote across Devil’s Gate bridge because he thought it would collapse due to some missing supports. He did, however, agree to use the Special to shove the passenger cars across the bridge, which was awfully noble of him. The cars, of course, made it across, but then had no steam engine to pull them to their destiny: Promontory Summit in the Utah territory. In stepped the trusty ol’ 1-1-9 to save the day.
3) The big day at Promontory Summit happened on May 10, 1869, and believe you me: It was, it seems, a big day. And so Promontory gets all the notoriety. Trouble is is that it kind of went out of commission in 1904. See, they were going around the Great Salt Lake instead of traversing it, which was a little more time consuming: utilization of The Lucin Cutoff shaved some 43 miles off of the trek.
4) Water was a problem to the east as well, only this time it was the Missouri River, and there was no circumnavigating it. In fact, for a time, folks had to de-train, and take a boat across it, which kind of makes the First Transcontinental Railroad a little less transcontinental, in my estimation. There was a solution to that, too, though: In 1873, the Union Pacific Missouri River Bridge opened up, making the railway officially transcontinental, except for this confusing tidbit:
5) The First Transcontinental Railroad consisted of a railway constructed by Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads. The western terminus (either end of a transportation line) is, um, the Pacific Ocean. It sounds to me like, if you’re wrestling with how to navigate lakes and rivers, that you probably don’t want to tackle an ocean, so…probably a good terminus. The eastern terminus, however, is Council Bluffs, Iowa/Omaha, Nebraska. Now, much like I’m not your typical ace in the hole when it comes to history, I’m not going to recommend that you hire me to teach your kids geography either. I do, however, recall enough about the landscape of the United States to say with a certain confidence that I think there’s land out there east of Omaha. And, yeah, I just dropped a little Seger on you. Uncalled for. I know. My bad. The point, though, is that we’re, once again, several states shy of saying, “I’m bad, I’m nationwide.” (Note: I think all the avenues in life would be more pleasant to stroll if we could weave a little ZZ Top into them.)
I do think, though, that I discovered the reason for this flaw, and that’s this: Abraham Lincoln is supposedly the responsible party for choosing Council Bluffs as the eastern terminus. That’s not a diss on Lincoln, either. I love me some Abe. Problem is: He made that decision from the Lincoln Memorial, which is probably a shade out of binoculars’ reach from Iowa. But in the end it wasn’t a big deal at all because all the Union and Central Pacifics had to do was connect with the eastern railways that already existed. Duh. Everyone knows the east coast gets everything first.
Anyway, The Golden Spike ceremony is the gig from which we get “The Jupiter & the 119,” and it’s a day that continues to receive notoriety. In 1957, the Promontory Summit area was proclaimed the Golden Spike National Historic Site. There were all kinds of celebrations for the 100-year anniversary, and heck – the state of Utah, in 2007, decided they’d go ahead and make the driving of the spike the image that appears on their quarter, which is pretty cool. Not as cool as it would be if they conjured up an image of someone explaining to someone else all of the details and rules associated with Utah’s bars and liquor stores, but you’d probably need a bigger quarter for that, and I’d bet that the other 49 states would probably be like, C’mon, Utah. You’re annoying enough as it is.
Also, Council Bluffs built itself the Golden Spike Monument, since, you know, the, uh, spike driving happened in Utah and Iowa is the eastern edge of civilization, but hey -- who’s keepin’ track.
Enough about a bunch of stuff constructed by dead people, though. We’re talking about a song here. And it’s a good one. Remember? I broke rules for this thing. Like, chaos ensued, and whatnot.
Let’s talk bluegrass for a minute.
This genre of music is daunting to me. To give it to you in a really watered-down version, I imagine it to be something like Harry Potter. What I mean by that is that I saw the first Harry Potter movie. Like, in the theater, with popcorn and a Coke the size of my right leg. And though it was a while ago, I seem to recall enjoying it. It didn’t make me want to read the book, but then again, movies seldom do. I’m typically of the belief system that the book is always better than the movie, but I’m almost never qualified to say that because I don’t read nearly enough. I own a ton of books, and one day hope to read every one of them, but that’s a daunting blog post for another day.
But perhaps the golden-spike driving point here is that I didn’t go see the second Harry Potter movie, or any of the ones that followed that, either. And that’s probably because I didn’t choose to go see the first Harry Potter movie. I went to it because that’s what my family selected to go see while we were in Florida for Christmas. I wasn’t opposed to seeing it, and I certainly wasn’t going to be weird relative that stays home from the movies while everyone else goes. So I went. And it was good. But that was 10 years ago. I’ve probably thought about Harry Potter for a total of 19 seconds since then, so it kinda just wasn’t meant to be. And I think maybe the same thing started to happen, or could’ve happened, with bluegrass. I can’t recall any specific moments or people or opportunities, but I imagine there were several crossroads in my life where, had I gone a different direction, I could’ve begun the arduous process of obtaining my PhD in bluegrass. (Note: We’re talkin’ figurative terms here, kids. Figurative.) I could’ve explored the roots, the beginnings, carved out a niche of some favorites, and let the exposure blossom.
But see, what happens when you’re stubborn looks a little something like this:
Person X: “Dude, let me make you a copy of this tape. I think you’ll really dig these guys.”
Stubborn me: “That’s cool, bro. I’ve already been given the keys to every musical city on the planet, so I highly doubt you’re going to show me anything I haven’t already stamped as awesome.”
And so here we are. I do know a little bluegrass, so I’m not hopeless. But in my helping friendly book of rules, where the balance cannot go unrestored, and petty details may not remain unanswered, and hyperbole is the worst thing ever, “a little” may as well be a dull pair of scissors while I stare at a locomotive-sized jar of mustard. Ain’t no cuttin’ happenin’. There are reasons behind why this is important enough to explain in detail, and those reasons look like this: Bluegrass music is up my frickin’ alley, yo. It’s the kind of thing that jives with my rustic soul, my old-school approach.
Check this out: The first thing I ever saved up (Note: Also figurative. I could never really “save” for anything since I was always blowing my wad on cassettes, but whatever.) for and purchased was an electric guitar. I was so excited for it that I couldn’t even wait until I’d saved enough for an amp. I just played without one for a while. I took lessons. I practiced. A little. But I wanted to shred like Eddie Van Halen, be a rock star like Jimmy Page, and have that Tom Scholz Rockman sound blast out of some speakers while chicks in the crowd went berserk over me and my band. And don’t get me wrong. I love and respect the guitar. I just never had the patience and determination to master it. At one point, I had an arsenal of like eight or 10 songs I could play but couldn’t touch a solo to save my life.
But I hung onto that thing, drug it with me with every move. And then, after college, I bought a nice keyboard. And I took lessons. And the mantra was this: The piano is the root of music, right? So, if I learn piano, then I’ll be more musically knowledgeable, and also, if my rig gets big enough to include a Moog and some clav’ action, then naturally, chicks will dig me. And my band. As we rage on the stage. I was really into it for a bit, too. But then I moved to pursue this relationship, which was bad timing for, among other things, my blossoming career as a pianist. A short while later, I bought my buddy’s bass.
That was kinda it. He was selling it. I knew I’d probably never seriously take it up, but the idea of potential jam sessions (Note: Relationship already over, lots of space in my house, and now all I’m missing is a drum kit! The band is nearly complete! Now all’s we gotta do is figure out how to play these things!) and all-night parties was too much to pass up. Plus it was cheap. And then, a few years later, at a time when I could absolutely not afford to make another impulse purchase, I bought dual turntables and a mixer, which went a little something like this –- and, yes, you must say this in your best stoner voice -- in my head: Dude, if you can’t produce original material, you can make ultra-sweet compilations of other people’s music. This will be both gnarly and instant platinum.
I hung onto everything for a little while, and even added my sister-in-law’s acoustic to the collection when she needed some cash. Sold the electric and thebass a little over a year ago. Still have the Yamaha and the Technics, but I would trade them both in an instant for a banjo. Yeah. A banjo.
I’d steer the John Deere back to the farmhouse a little early each day, and I’d sit on the porch, drink a cold beer, and play the dickens outta my banjo. And not ‘cause I think it’d make the ladies dig me, but because I love the sound of that instrument. And here’s how realistic this dream is: I’m not lookin’ to become the next Bela Fleck. I’d be content just learning how to play “The Rainbow Connection.” Banjos are that righteous.
Anyway, there’s a ton of bluegrass I haven’t discovered, but thankfully I’ve discovered a tiny little morsel, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that “The Jupiter & the 119” starts off with some beautiful mandolin/fiddle (Note: Technically, Tim Carbone is listed as a violinist, but when I think of violins, I think of those terrible strings performances they always have elementary-school kids do, where it sounds like these kids have dedicated a solid four minutes of practice in preparation for the big day. For my money, when it’s this big and bold of a sound, it’s a flippin’ fiddle.) action. It’s kind of eerie, too, almost like the sound of it casts an image of that near-dusk part of the day where the world is sorta settlin’ in and leaves are kinda scootin’ around in bunches of wind here and there. It’s almost like the fiddle is the wind, and the rustling leaves come to life with each pluck of the mandolin’s strings. Or maybe I just watch too much television. I dunno.
The genre of bluegrass might be the only showcase for the acoustic guitar when the acoustic guitar is not appearing in singer/songwriter fashion. It provides the perfect amount of backbone to the collective sound. It never overpowers, and would certainly be noticed if omitted. So, Sheaffer kicks in with some six-string strumming and then the banjo comes rollin’ in. And by “rollin’ in,” I do not mean that super-speedy, fast-pickin’ pace of play, but a smooth, yet bouncy kind of cycle to it. The only way I can think of to describe it is to mention that terribly cheesy rollin’ thing that Daunte Culpepper used to do in Minnesota, and that would do a serious disservice to both the song and the band. They do, nevertheless, really get things going, and the rest of the band joins in.
Sheaffer and company begin to tell the story of these two locomotives, their musical fire starts to get hot enough where you could cook over it, and they back it off a notch. Solid, solid move. I’ll say this about songwriting, and know going in that I’m about as versed in the art of writing song as I am qualified to tune a piano: If you can tackle both the concept of strategical placement, along with tactful execution, throwing an “Ooo” or an “Ohh” into your song is very soothing. I think it’s one of those things that all of us say or think or sing with some regularity but simply aren’t aware of it, so when we become aware of it, and then do it, it feels really natural. Railroad Earth hits the Ooos in this track outta the park.
And speaking of placement, that nice little vocal moment is followed by a segment that has some quiet, sporadic picking and bow playing that provides filler to a rather boisterous drum portion that supports a vocal segment that’s crucial to the story -– the two engines making their way toward each other -- and then everyone nicely rejoins for the refrain. The song and the story begin to build a little steam, and everyone’s plugging along up until the three-minute mark, and it is at that point that Carbone makes a change in delivery; his fiddle switches from subtle background to forefront accents, and it’s one of those moves that sorta says, Hey, listen up: We’re gettin’ somewhere important in a second.
And gettin’ somewhere they are. I mean, hello! Golden Spike ceremony dead ahead! Another nice transition follows though. It’s near the five-minute mark, and it seems, in flashes, that all you hear is vocals. And I gotta say that at this very minute, I cannot think of another song where music and story meet in such a wonderful marriage. We’re talkin’ eggs-and-bacon good here, people. Now, it may seem like I’m now an expert on the First Transcontinental Railroad, but I assure you that I am not. I know only what you’ve read and nothing more, but in my various clicks of the InterWebs I’ve come across a few images of the big day, or maybe it was one image and one likeness. Whatever. The point is that all of the reading and image viewing in the world don’t paint the picture that this Sheaffer delivery does:
“They met in Promontory, from east and west they’re here,
And all across the country, they raised a mighty cheer.
The mighty tracks are polished, on the tracks they proudly rest,
The crowd’s all gathered ‘round ‘em, dressed up in their Sunday best.
The big brass band is playin’, it’s a bright uncloudy day,
The speaker’s oratory, and the bosses have their say.
The reverend says a prayer, it’s mercifully short,
The drunken railmen laugh, and the iron horses snort.
The engines movin’ closer, they easin’ down the line,
The champagne bottles pop. Come fill your glass, it’s toastin’ time.
These engines, these were maiden, they’re nose-to-nose alike,
They raised a silver hammer, and they NAILED THE GOLDEN SPIKE!”
From the song’s peak there isn’t any further development necessary, but suffice to say that all instruments are in full bloom, and when audible, they conjure up images of hayseed-chewin’, dirty, bare feet, and swinging dresses. And it’s here that the banjo playing is really remarkable. While all parts are equal throughout most of the song, it’s important for this instrument to take a larger role as the song begins to wind down because it offers the feel of the kind of machine that’s so powerful that you don’t want to shut directly down after a good running, but rather you want ease into an idler speed, and eventually shut it off. And as the tune tapers off, you get a little fiddle mixed in with the banjo, which is akin to the lightest, most perfect dessert after an incredible meal. The kind that leaves you just a notch over satisfied, yet not quite flirting with uncomfortably full. Better still, is the image that the two instruments conjure: the nice, thick-and-healthy lingering smoke cloud left behind by a train.
So, as you might’ve guessed: I’m a pretty big fan of this song. And while we’re bathing in honesty, I’ll let you peak below a few bubbles: I don’t typically allow one track to speak to an album’s value, but this song is an exception. “The Jupiter & the 119” is Drew Brees in 2009. Sure, the rest of the ammo is good, but let’s look at the gun that’s doin’ the firing. This is a really well-crafted tune, and it’s time you should hear it for yourself. The studio version can be streamed here, but they’ve taken out that nice intro I’ve so quaintly described. You can get a feel for it my checking out the first minute or so of this live version. Like the blogger that provides the link to that stream writes, “Give the track a listen. It’s addictive!” Or better yet, buy the album.
To summarize, though: It's worth noting that, given all of the direction that music has gone in the last 142 years, it's nothing shy of impeccable that a band, a group of musicians, could compose a track that's this amazing that's not about a relationship, or about the sense of loss experienced via one of today's plights, but rather, about an incredible feat that changed our society, progressed it. The railroad, man. If you can sit down, pen the lyrics to a tune about a piece of history that's ancient, given the newness of America, and then compose a fantastic cut that jives this well with your story, then kudos, boss. You're doin' somethin' right.