Ride the rails with Billy Bragg and Joe Henry: "You never hear anybody talking about a lonesome car alarm, do you, playing in a distance"

Salon talks to the duo about "Shine a Light," their new collection of field recordings made in Amtrak stations

Published September 28, 2016 10:58PM (EDT)

Billy Bragg and Joe Henry   (Jacob Blickenstaff)
Billy Bragg and Joe Henry (Jacob Blickenstaff)

On Sept. 23, singer-songwriters Billy Bragg and Joe Henry released "Shine A Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad." The pair tackles traditional tunes such as "Rock Island Line," "In The Pines" and "The Midnight Special" — all of which were once recorded by Lead Belly — and songs popularized by Glen Campbell ("Gentle On My Mind") and Woody Guthrie ("Hobo's Lullaby"), as well as originals by Gordon Lightfoot, Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams.

As the title of "Shine A Light" implies, however, Henry and Bragg recorded the album in a unique way: The two hopped on an Amtrak train and recorded these songs acoustically at various stations and junctures around the country. As a result, the tunes are intimate and timeless and boast ambient sounds in the background — everything from the shuffling of the train to chirping birds.

The idea for "Shine A Light" partly came out of research Bragg was doing for an upcoming book examining the social and cultural history of the U.K.'s pre-British Invasion music, when "jazz-based music was replaced by guitar-based music," he said, and artists such as the skiffle pioneer Lonnie Donegan had a brief chart run. "Researching that [book], I came over a huge number of train songs — mostly from Lead Belly’s repertoire, that Donegan and his acolytes were playing," Bragg said.

"That drew my attention to why there were so many train songs," Bragg added. "In my country, there's a lot of songs about sailing because we live in an island. When young people wanted to get away from a broken heart or escape from the law, they would join the navy or something like that. Whereas in America it seemed to be it was the train that was the way that people resolved or made things happen."

Bragg was also asked by Aperture magazine to take part in a photo documentary celebrating the 90th birthday of photographer Robert Frank. Instead of participating in a piece with performance shots, Bragg said he had always wanted to visit Rock Island, located in the Quad Cities. ("I told [project photographer Alex Soth] how boring it would be to follow me around taking photographs of me doing gigs," he said. "It’s kind of a bit 'Groundhog Day' in terms of exciting things.") That led to a trip to Cummins Prison Farm in Arkansas, which was significant because "in 1934 John Lomax, assisted by Lead Belly, who was kind of working as a roadie for him at the time, first recorded the song 'Rock Island Line.' In the context of that, we saw a lot trains."

The musician was amazed to see trains stop at American stations for 20 minutes because he was used to the way Britain's trains paused for only a fraction of that time. I "played a couple of songs in the waiting room for people," he said. "The acoustics in the waiting room were really great, and I kinda thought, 'You know, if the train stops everywhere for 20 minutes, you would have time to go into the waiting room and perhaps record a song.'" He reached out to his longtime pal Joe Henry — who produced Bragg's 2013 album "Tooth & Nail" — and explained his idea.

"He's been a friend of mine for close to 30 years, and I was a great admirer of him as an artist before that," Henry said in a separate interview. "I'm always inclined to be interested in whatever he's doing. And, of course, I said yes immediately even before I knew exactly what he was proposing, just because I’m so intrigued by the process. Because it sounded like certainly not a nostalgic project, but something very much driven by real-time engagement, which is certainly what I'm after."

Henry and Bragg settled on an Amtrak train route that went from Chicago to Los Angeles by taking a path south through Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona; it also went west along the U.S.-Mexico border. "We chose that route because it was the longest, so that gave us more opportunities to record, but also because it went right into the heartland of America, which I think is very important that the railroad does that," Bragg said. "And the second leg follows the border where Donald Trump was talking about building a wall. That was all just happening around the time we were getting the train. That was a stark contrast to travel along through Texas, through New Mexico, Arizona and into California."

Bragg was also floored by the different purpose of American trains, in the sense that they're not used for passenger travel quite as much as they are elsewhere. "The paradox is the United States of America puts more freight on rail than any other industrialized nation," he said. "So it’s not as if the railroads don’t work. They are an absolute crucial part of the distribution of freight in your country. But passengers — forget it."

"It’s not like they're forgotten and rundown and nobody cares about them any more," Bragg said. They "are absolutely crucial parts of the American economy."

Bragg and Henry spoke with Salon about how "Shine A Light" coalesced, what they learned about America from taking the journey and why trains continue to resonate so strongly today.

There's always been something very romantic about a train. There is that kind of that loneliness, and there's something about hopping on and traveling on it. It is such an interesting, different method of transportation.

Billy Bragg: It is the romantic things. I’m speaking as a foreigner, but I think in the American imagination, the railroad is probably second to the idea of the West. You know, it has that idea of possibility in it. The idea of the old West and the old railroad — all these songs where the railroad is the thing that brings change.

The interesting thing also is that the railroad probably was the most transformative technology that humans ever invented. I mean, in your country, it simply wasn’t possible to build a city anywhere other than on a river or the coast before the railroad came. You just couldn’t get the fabric of a city into the interior. So railroads changed all that. And the connectivity of the internet is nothing compared to the material connectivity the railroads brought to people.

In my country, if you took someone from the medieval period and dropped 'em into the year 1800, things wouldn’t really look that different to them. People would still be traveling on horses and on boats. Buildings would have been larger scale. You'd be able to drink coffee and tea, which you wouldn’t have before. But fundamentally, you wouldn’t really be that freaked out. Shakespeare, if he turned up in 1800, would’ve been able to deal with it easily, I think.

You take Shakespeare to 1900, he’d have probably been … [Laughs.] It would've done his head in. And it's [the] change that the railroads brought, both to my country and to your country, [that's] why they still have that huge cultural pull to them.

You know, the arrival of the automobile and the airplane only really harnesses the changes that the railroad wrought initially. The idea that you don’t have to just buy stuff from within a 20-mile radius of where you were born; [it would become common that] you can buy things from 200 miles away from another continent because the train comes every day and bring stuff. That was a huge psychological and emotional leap. That explains why there are so many train songs, because they were so massive in people’s lives.

When you were on your big journey, what insights did you glean about the U.S. that you hadn't noticed or observed before?

Joe Henry: I suppose a number of things — just how much of our country exists outside of the banner of major cities. We so tend to abbreviate our national experience by thinking in terms of major cities. I live in Los Angeles; I used to live in New York City; my son lives in New York City. We think of ourselves in relation to these grand, communal experiences — and experiments, in fact, as every city is, in a way.

You travel by train [and] you realize just how much of the country exists and imagines its own identity completely separate and out and far away from the cities that give most of us a sense of place. When you're on a train, you're skirting through the outskirts of of very small towns.

When the train slows or stops to let a freight train pass — because a freight train has priority in this country over passenger travel — you're right in somebody's backyard. You're snapped right back into recognizing how much living actually happens outside of the parameters of city identity. And not that I hadn't known that before, but it was shocking to be reawakened to it in my conscious mind.

And that there are moments along the rail there where you look out the window and you think, "This image I'm seeing could be any time in the last one hundred years, and nothing would have to change. I could take this photograph and put it in black and white, and I wouldn't know whether it was [taken] now or it was 50 years ago, or 90 years ago." How much of our country does not evolve in the same impatient, rapid scale as those of us who push and pull in major cities daily.

That’s a really powerful realization, how timeless some of these things are and how little some things do change.

Henry: It's both daunting and affirming to be reminded about how many things really do not change. And we think of ourselves as fairly evolved but evolving so rapidly just because we have made technological advances. We can often forget how much we have in common with ourselves, our ancestry 100 years ago. Even though they've been sort of articulated and satisfied in different technological ways, but our desires and our sense of priority is not that different than it was.

It's important to note that. We think we've left our past behind, and we get in trouble when we don't realize how much of it we carry with us. As Faulkner said, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past."

Bragg: For someone like myself, who's been traveling in America since 1984, there's an America that I’m familiar with. One is, you know, the airports and looking at it from 8 miles high, and then the other one is coming into town off of the freeway and going to a hotel and going to a gig. Me, personally, I don’t often get to see in people’s backyards, looking into their back kitchen windows, but that’s where the train tracks are.

And because trains in America tend to travel a little slower, the train would stop at the edge of a town somewhere. And you'd be looking into a trailer park or that weird part of a town where the town's kind of petering out — you know, with just a few houses and some broken cars and maybe some kids playing. And that part of America I've never really seen, so that was an insight there. But also once we got to San Antonio and turned west, there was a contrast between Texas and Mexico [that] was stark.

Henry: You leave El Paso [and] you go through the desert, to Tucson, Arizona, then down to Los Angeles. As we were pulling out of El Paso, it was probably about two in the afternoon. I was standing between cars, where there was a door and window to either side of me, and I was facing forward, and the direction of the train was traveling west. And we were skirting right along the American-Mexican border, and I looked out the right window, and there was the sprawl of contemporary El Paso suburbia. I looked out the left side of the window, and just as close was Juarez, Mexico, and it looked like it was about the middle 1800s, from our vantage point.

And you're snapped right back into the reality that we as human beings impose these distinctions upon ourselves as them and us. We tend to think that even if we went up into the space, we would look down and we would see that the hand or whatever creator has drawn a line between United States and Mexico, as if that's a natural border between our actual humanities, as opposed to, you know, a national conceit.

But look how different life is when we've decided to imagine that at this particular line, life is different or has a different currency and a different value to the left of me and to the right of me. That's all decisions. And we are reminded how much of our interactions — some of them beautiful, many of them horrific — between nations are creations. We create these distinctions, and then invest ourselves deeply in pretending that they are not creations but natural wonders.

It was heart-stopping. I knew that that psychically this division existed and there was a completely different character to the lives being led. But the fact that I could witness it just by the swivel of my head to either side — and have it be so vividly remarkable. . . . You couldn’t miss it. It was a 150 years' difference between the two images I was seeing.

How did your experience as you were soaking up everything really influence your musical performances?

Henry: The best way it influenced us was to encourage us — and this was about the process. Had we gone into a recording studio, you're in that mind of being focused on recording and how well this recording represents me as an artist, for instance. You can’t get away with that thought when you're in that environment.

But because we were being directed by the process, because we had a very limited amount of time and we were beholden to circumstances that were changing all the time, the beauty is that you get liberated from thinking about how these songs represent you as an artist, and you think instead about how as an artist you might just wholly disappear into these songs.

It wasn’t about, "How good do I sound?" or "How close is our harmony singing at this moment?" We made a decision to approach these recordings as two people sitting around feeding logs into a fire just to put sparks into the air and thought very little about performance beyond just the idea that does this feel like a living thing when where we hear it back? Not how does it make me sound? But does it sound alive? It's incredibly liberating to let go of the other, let me tell you.

Bragg: The places where we recorded were the places where the train stopped for 20 or 30 minutes to change a crew. On a 65-hour journey, you know, there's a couple crew changes. And most of the people in the station by the train were concentrating on getting off or getting on the train. It wasn’t such a big deal that there were a couple of guys with guitars. I mean it’s similar in the U.K.: Guys with guitars in railway stations is not a weird thing. People busk in all sorts of different places. So that didn’t get much attention.

The fact that we were recording — our sound engineer got a bit of attention. But there were, there were two guys filming on small, hand-held digital cameras; that didn’t really get [attention]. The people on the train with us were interested, because obviously we had to talk to the conductor and say, "Look, we're not getting off here; we're just getting off to record. We want to get back on. Will you please not leave without us?" We had to keep in visual contact with the train so we didn’t miss the "all aboard."

But the fact that we were only going to be there for a short time was a huge discipline to us. To be ready when we arrived, everybody be ready to do their thing, and to get the takes one, two, three, if we can get them and get back on the train and worry about what we got afterwards. Not to be too precious. And I kinda liked that aspect.

I mean, Joe is really good at that: He’s a record producer. He’s worked in some fabulous studios, but he also is someone who has made an album in which he left the doors of his studio open and the windows to get the ambient noise of his neighborhood between takes. So I knew he wouldn’t be fussed by the sound the trains make going by and announcements being made while we were singing or anything like that.

I love that aspect of the record. That really adds the ambience of the songs. It's very subtle, but it really does make a difference.

Bragg: We didn’t want to make a railroad album — you know, singing songs about [the] railroad in a studio somewhere. We wanted to make an album that was not about the railroad, but is actually of the railroad, that actually took you on the journey with us. We actually did use four mics. Joe and I had a mic on our voices and guitars, and then we had two other mics at 90 degrees to our mics so we're picking up ambient sounds.

Sometimes that was people; sometimes it was engines; some of it was door slamming in Chicago. Also there were birds in Texas, grackles. The dawn chorus at the very end in Los Angeles. We woke up the birds from the dawn chorus. There's a plaza next to the railway station — it may be part of the railway station there — and we found a quiet spot to sing. At five o’ clock in the morning, we woke up the dawn chorus. Every environment was different [and] represented a different challenge to find a spot and to deliver the songs that we wanted to deliver.

Were there any particular challenges recording these?

Bragg: The only real challenges would have been if [someone] had come out and [said], “What are you doing? You can’t do that here.” I mean, that only happened in Fort Worth. The Fort Worth Amtrak station is very modern. It’s been built in the last 10 years, and it doubles up as a bus station. Consequently, there's security guards wandering 'round, and they didn’t like us. We had to move back out of their sight, back by the railway, by the other side of the train to play. But other than that, people were, were very, very accepting.

Really the real challenge was, was finding somewhere relatively quiet and delivering the songs in the time that we had and keeping an eye on the train, not missing the train. It would have been unfortunate if we had to spend the last night on the train picking out the songs that we hadn’t managed to record. As it was, we managed to get 'em all the way as and where we wanted to.

How much research and planning went into the song selection, in terms of playing different songs at certain stations? It was obviously very deliberate.

Bragg:  Joe has a great knowledge of American roots music. I have been working on this book about skiffle, and that brought me to a lot of these recordings, a lot of Lead Belly's early recordings, Woody Guthrie's recordings, Hank Williams, the Carter Family. People love the railroad. People just love it, so there are enthusiasts out there. You can buy railroad albums online quite cheaply because so many of the songs were recorded over 70 years ago. They're all out of copyright, so you can pick up railroad songs cheap as chips.

That's the source of many of these songs. But we did particularly want to choose songs that we felt fit particular aspects of what we were trying to do. Obviously, Lead Belly was a huge influence. Jimmie Rodgers, who himself worked on the railroad, the singing brake man. The Carter Family’s "Railroading on the Great Divide." We were crossing the Great Divide as we went along between El Paso and Tucson. So there was that aspect as well. But really it made me realize that there are so many train songs out there, and they talk about so many different aspects of a human condition. For me, that’s the real interest about railroad songs.

Car songs tend to be about being in cars. Airplane songs tend to be about, you know, going on a flight, whereas in railroad songs, the train is often is a metaphor. It’s not even physically in the song. If you think of a song like "Folsom Prison [Blues]" by Johnny Cash, that’s actually a railroad song because it’s the train making him feel so bereft of his freedom. It’s the whistle on the train; it’s the image of the people drinking coffee and smoking big cigars that’s killing him. The railroad played such a big role in the lives of ordinary Americans in the period up until the end of the second World War, when you began building the interstate network and the focus changed onto individualism and cars.

Before that the train was a universal experience, so when people wrote about traveling on the train, everybody had some emotional investment in that idea. The notion of the lonesome whistle is so evocative, even for someone like myself from England. You never hear anybody talking about a lonesome car alarm, do you, playing in a distance or anything like that? It just doesn’t have that same emotional weight with it.

Also there was the aspect of what we could sing together and what sounded good. [Laughs.] There was a lot of that, too.

Henry: I wouldn’t have been the least bit interested in this had it been pitched as a nostalgic project: "Let's go into a studio and record songs that say how much we love trains." I mean, everybody loves the romantic notion of train travel in this country. It's really part of our national DNA. But the whole trick was, you know, how do we invite ourselves — and anybody else who might come to this table — to hear these songs as contemporary language, as living vocabulary that still has something to say to us about who we are and why we are?

What really strikes me is how much of the album was an endeavor to figure out how these classic, older songs resonated now, how do they fit in the modern railroad system and what you guys see.

Henry: I think a project like this would have almost had to come from a foreigner, someone looking into this country with an aerial view of our mythology, our evolution and our sense of national identity. For a lot of us, even if we love and respect not only the railroad as a technology — and a transfiguring one — but as part of our cultural vocabulary, many of us love that history and and revere it. But it's lost on us that it's still a working element in our daily lives.

It's so easy for us to place the railroad and its significance and influence into antiquity. And part of what Billy is fascinated about — and I join him there — is waking ourselves up and anybody willing to listen to the fact that not only is the road still an active part of our lives  and stands to be more so if we would seize the opportunity. But it's a really significant part of our heritage and the way that we understand ourselves and how we relate to each other. I think we need to be awake to that.

By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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