The name Railroad Earth evokes images of steam engines, mountains and Irish and Chinese laborers laying down track through mountains and vast deserts, dreaming of a better life.
The image, like the band playing at the El Dorado County Fairgrounds, 100 Placerville Drive in Placerville, on Saturday, Oct. 27 and Sunday, Oct. 28, reflects a confluence of energies into something greater than the sum of its parts.
Railroad Earth came together in last part of 2000 as a bluegrass band, and cut its teeth in a legendary 2001 performance at the prestigious Telluride Bluegrass Festival, a deft last minute booking by Brian Ross, an L.A.-based film music supervisor who befriended the band in its formative stage and remained on as manager.
He spoke to the Mountain Democrat recently, and recalled working with violinist Timothy Carbone and multi-instrumentalist Andy Goessling on music for the film “Big Eden” in 2000.
As a film music supervisor, Ross gathers, creates, and negotiates the rights for music used in motion pictures. He was formerly a booking agent with Family Tree Agency, where he met most of the players who became Railroad Earth.
Carbone and Goessling were assembling a bluegrass band. Ross got interested when his old friend Todd Sheaffer, a stellar vocalist and songwriter, showed up with several new songs.
Ross heard them play the new material and was impressed. Session player John Skehan, drummer Carey Harmon and bassist Dave Von Dollen completed the lineup in January 2001.
After three weeks of rehearsal they went to a local recording studio and tracked a quick five-song demo on the cheap.
“It was unbelievably phenomenal,” said Ross.
He agreed to manage them and called Craig Ferguson, the owner/buyer for the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, who made it clear that the 2001 festival lineup was completely booked.
Ross sent the demo anyway.
“Two days later I get this phone call with these songs cranked in the background,” said Ross. “Craig said he hadn’t heard anything like these guys since the Newgrass Revival, who were the gods of the Telluride scene at that time. And sure enough he actually booked us into the opening slot at the festival.”
The band had recorded the demo songs straight to tape, with only minor overdubbing. Ross suggested they record another six songs. The result became the band’s debut CD, “The Black Bear Sessions,” released in June, just in time for Telluride.
More festival bookings followed that summer, including the High Sierra Music Festival. A star was born. The phenomenon would follow.
Andrew Altman replaced Von Dollen in 2010.
The band’s most recent, self-titled album is more guitar-driven, with less of the band’s formative bluegrass elements. The arrangements are less dense with a greater emphasis on melody over solos, and more aggressive harmonies and innovative fills that provide vocal texture, where before there might be strings.
It contains sing-able hits like the Transcontinental Railroad story “Jupiter & the 119,” the spacey “Spring-Heeled Jack,” the beautifully plaintive “Day on the Sand,” and the haunting “Black Elk Speaks,” a harmonic group-sing that sounds like the Jefferson Airplane has landed on Railroad Earth.
The overall effort is more mainstream than the band’s prior efforts and received critical praise.
The album appealed to old and new fans and was a clear statement that Railroad Earth is still rolling down the tracks.
The band headlines the Hangtown Halloween Ball and will also provide a more-or-less improvised soundtrack to the 1925 silent horror classic “Phantom of the Opera” on Friday night.
For tickets and more information, visit the festival Website hangtownhalloween.com.
Todd Sheaffer — guitar, vocals (2001–present)
Tim Carbone — violin, accordion, electric guitar, vocals (2001–present)
John Skehan — mandolin, bouzouki, vocals (2001–present)
Andy Goessling — acoustic guitars, banjo, dobro, mandolin, flute, pennywhistle, saxophones, vocals (2001–present)
Carey Harmon — drums, hand percussion, vocals (2001–present)
Andrew Altman — bass, vocals (2010–present)