It’s somewhat fitting that a band named after a Jack Kerouac poem release a “destination” album, rife with inspirational lyrics about legendary road trips and fallen comrades, which is exactly what beloved jamgrass pioneers Railroad Earth have done with their latest studio release, All For The Song.
After suffering the tragic loss of founding member Andy Goessling, who passed away from cancer in 2018, the band decided to head south to the cozy confines of New Orleans to regroup and prepare for the recording of their eighth full-length LP, and first since 2014’s Last of The Outlaws.
“From the beginning, the vision was more than just the music,” explains frontman Todd Sheaffer when asked about the group’s latest project. “We looked at this like a ‘destination’ record. Our past records were all made close to home or, in fact, at home. Andy’s passing was very much in the center of our thoughts and our hearts in the writing and recording of this album. Things were so shaken up that we thought it’d be a benefit to go away from all of the distractions and be together. In New Orleans, there is great food and there are great spirits to be shared.”
That tactical decision to change locales pays off admirably as the resulting album is yet another entry in an already long line of genuinely strong studio releases from the New Jersey collective.
An added source of musical inspiration comes via the production skills of Anders Osborne, marking the first time the band has used an outside producer for one of their studio albums.
“His enthusiasm is contagious,” gushes drummer Carey Harmon in reference to working with Osborne. “There are five producers in this band, so a strong-willed voice from the outside is usually pretty essential. Anders was the voice.” Sheaffer agrees, “He brought a pure and striving soul, unforgettable laugh, rich palette of emotion, a great stash of guitars and amps, philosophical driftings, freedom, unguarded honesty, warmth, and love.”
The album opens up with “The Great Divide”, a heartening tribute to Goessling that makes an immediate impact on the listener thanks to violinist Tim Carbone’s infectious instrumental refrain and some moving lyrics from Sheaffer, whose work as the band’s primary wordsmith is often criminally overlooked.
“Blues Highway”, a rollicking number that boasts some choice mandolin fills from John Skehan as well as a smattering of welcoming harmonica runs, paints a vivid picture of a harrowing experience Sheaffer experienced while driving down Highway 61 when he suddenly encountered a deluge of biblical proportions.
“We had a show in Natchez, so I decided to make my own adventure out of the trip,” he recalls. “I flew to New Orleans, rented a car, and drove up the Blues Highway like a tourist, stopping and touring the old plantations and blues honky-tonks. I was smelling the river and the refineries. On my return to New Orleans, I drove into what might’ve been a hurricane with intense and terrifying lightning to boot. In the dead of night, I gave up trying to inch down the road, pulled over, and waited it out. The trip seemed like a parallel for my life at the time and inspired the song.”
One of the album’s many standout moments, “It’s So Good”, shines thanks to its optimistic lyrics as well as the addition of a horn ensemble that adds an authentic Big Easy-soaked element to the uplifting track and showcases the group’s unique chameleon-like ability to deftly span multiple genres, despite its bluegrass-centric instrumental makeup.
Inspired by a little-known 19th-century novel, Green Mansions, the atmospheric “Showers of Rain” also counts among the album’s highlights with serene usage of strings and electric piano in addition to some impressive guitar work from Osborne, leading to a psychedelic musical adventure that ultimately clocks in past the eight-minute mark, making it the LP’s longest track by a significant margin.
“Come & Go Moon”, originally written by bassist Andrew Altman several years ago but never recorded until now, is a slinky shuffle that features a unique instrumental hook eerily reminiscent of the Grateful Dead’s “Tennesse Jed” and is followed up by the country-tinged “Runnin’ Wild” and the swampy “My Favorite Spot”, which also serves as a fine example of Sheaffer’s impressive vocal range.
The quick upbeat jaunt “Slippin’ Away” precedes Carbone’s epic pairing of “Drifting->The Bardo”. Featuring some of Goessling’s final recordings on ukulele and high-strung guitar, “Drifting” is a hypnotic affair that gracefully segues into a dramatic instrumental segment with baroque and Celtic influences affectionately referred to as “The Bardo”.
“As we were recording it, ‘The Bardo’ came to represent Andy’s transition,” reveals Carbone. “It was an emotional experience.”
The album concludes on a somber note with Sheaffer’s mournful title track “All For The Song”, which, according to the guitarist, counts among his most emotional lyrical output. “It’s a bit painful to contemplate or talk about, to be honest—as are a couple of other tunes on this record. The song says way more than enough, I believe.”
Brimming with compelling melodies, top-shelf musicianship and profound lyrics that invoke echoes of Robert Hunter, All For The Song offers up a tantalizing collection of songs that will go a long way in cementing Railroad Earth’s status as one of the most influential Americana acts of all time.