This transatlantic partnership takes a long train ride to record classic railroad songs.
Time: 12 tracks / 14 mins
Label: Cooking Vinyl
If you’re going to do something, do it properly. That seems like the rationale that Bragg and Henry used when recording these American railroad songs.
Boarding a train at Chicago, they travelled the tracks right the way down to the Mexican border and then on to California, nearly 3,000 miles in all. If a train stopped for a re-fuel for twenty minutes or so at a relevant station, they quickly stepped off with some recording equipment and sang a song, sometimes pertinent to that venue. So the background sounds add to the authenticity of the disc.
One of the best tracks is the poignant “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore,” which raises a cry from a town built up around mining, but which declined just as fast when the mining stopped. “In the Pines” is another that both captures the heart and is utterly singable.
“Midnight Special” is built on jail mythology about a prisoner being next up for parole if the train’s headlight shines on him as the night train turns a curve outside the jail. It is one of the tracks that reflect the image of a railroad as a route to freedom.
The vocal pairing is an interesting one. Bragg’s political passion resonates strongly with the social concerns in the songs and Henry (known on this site for his production work with Over the Rhine) is an American singer-songwriter with a warm voice and a zeal for sonic purity.
While their voices are complementary, Bragg occasionally sounds a little awkward singing an American tradition, particularly when he yodels in “Waiting for a Train.” “Railroading on the Great Divide” also sees him touching the very bottom of his range.
With decades of material to choose from, these songs all have something going for them, whether popularity, singability or the way they capture a mood or moment. Two surprising tracks are the far more modern “Early Morning Rain” and “Gentle on my Mind” – superb inclusions, which display a new aspect in this company.
At their recent gig at Union Chapel, London, the pair stressed that the project is not just looking back on a tradition, but renewing that tradition for this century, using songs with a more timeless appeal. So Bragg likened the life of some hobos, who feature in these songs, to refugees in the Calais jungle.
The website gives a great idea of the songs and background, and is well worth a visit.