Billy Bragg & Joe Henry “Shine A Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad” (Cooking Vinyl, 2016)

Bragg anbilly-bragg-joe-henryd Henry recorded these thirteen railway themed songs whilst travelling for 65 hours along the 2,728-mile rail journey from Chicago to LA. The songs were guerrilla recorded at station stops along the way – the railroad is present at all times in the subject of the songs or adding ambient sounds to the recordings. These boho hobos have found a way to celebrate the railroad as a cultural icon without a hint of a blush; the songs are performed with such sincerity, affection and joy it becomes infectious – the morning commute never seems so romantic. 

The performances vary, as they would given the exigencies of the recording process. Bragg and Henry’s voices meld with differing degrees of success. Bragg’s never been the greatest singer but over the years he’s learnt to play to his strengths and to use personality to project. Here occasionally carrying a song can be too much of a burden as ‘Railroading On the Great Divide’ proves, then on ‘John Henry’ he finds the resolute authority to drive it home like a hammer on a railroad spike. ‘The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore’ contains a great performance from Bragg – singing with the requisite weight of resignation, he sounds like a man crushed by his circumstances.

The dark gothic of ‘In the Pines’ is perfectly judged with Bragg and Henry harmonising with just the minimum of acoustic guitar. I can picture them in torn and tattered clothes during the great depression gathered around a brazier, bony fingers picking at the guitar strings trying to find something that has gone forever. Henry’s vocal on ‘Gentle on My Mind’ is masterful – Bragg tags along behind like a hound in the shadow of his master, attentive and protective. ‘Early Morning Rain’ with the morning chorus chirping along in the background provide a gentle end to the trek.

I can’t help but think that this would have made tremendous documentary. As it is, the performances are evocative enough without any visuals. I can feel the crusty eyed tiredness and the joy of completing a performance moments before the train pulled out of the station. It’s a journey that I wouldn’t have bought a ticket for but one I’m glad I’ve undertaken.

Author: David Cowling

Punk rock, Go-Betweens, REM, Replacments, Husker Du, Minutemen, Will Oldham, Smog, Whiskeytown, Ass Ponys but probably most of all Howe Gelb, led me on this journey.

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