Railroad Earth has been variously categorized as “jamgrass,” “progressive bluegrass,” and “newgrass,” and lumped in with the likes of Yonder Mountain String Band, Greensky Bluegrass, Trampled by Turtles, and the Infamous Stringdusters—all of whom are completely different from one another! None of those labels and comparisons capture the scope of Railroad Earth’s music. Yes, the group can play stompin’ bluegrass with explosive acoustic guitar, mandolin, and banjo throwdowns. But they can also drift in psychedelic spaces reminiscent of the Grateful Dead, serve up jaunty Americana that comes on a straight line from The Band and other progenitors of rootsy rock, and hit some deep country spots.
The latest album from this perennially touring group, All for the Song, is a typically eclectic offering, with solid songwriting and plenty of fine pickin’ up and down from the versatile, 20-year-old New Jersey-based outfit: Todd Sheaffer (acoustic guitar, most lead vocals, principal songwriter), Tim Carbone (violin), John Skehan (mandolin, etc.), Andrew Altman (bass), and Carey Harman (percussion)—aided on tour by Mike Robinson (banjo, acoustic, electric, and pedal steel guitars) and Matt Slocum (keyboards). This is their first album since the 2018 death from cancer of multi-instrumentalist founding member Andy Goessling, and not surprisingly that loss colored the recording sessions, which took place in New Orleans with producer and guitar great Anders Osborne.
The result of their ten days in New Orleans is one of their strongest albums to date, one that is tinged with the darkness of “heartache and loss,” as Sheaffer put it, but also bursts of optimism.
As their winter tour was about to begin, we talked with Sheaffer about the new album and, naturally, about guitars. He is definitely one of the most interesting players in the contemporary progressive-acoustic band scene—a colorful and imaginative soloist who does wonders with a very simple setup.
Obviously what hangs over the Railroad Earth story of the last couple of years—even with all the success you’ve enjoyed—is Andy’s death. I’m wondering how his passing affected your experience in the studio making the new album and on stage. He was one of those guys who played off everybody really well and was always in the mix on everything.
That’s right, he was an integral part of the sound and the spirit of the undertaking from the beginning, so it’s had a huge effect on all of us. You know, one of the conscious choices we made about the album is that it would be a destination record. By that I mean we left home. With a lot of our records, we spend so much time on the road that when the opportunity to stay close to home comes up when you’re making a record, we like to do that. This time, though, we wanted to go away. After Andy passed, the five of us decided we wanted the intimate shared experience of getting together on some new music and bonding as a group again. So we went to New Orleans with Anders producing, and it was a great thing for us to do, to leave the distractions of all the things that go on at home and reconnect with each other.
Although New Orleans can be a distraction in itself, of course.
It was a distraction in a good way, I’m sure. We were working really hard. We were only there for 10 days, so we were really busy. Of course, you got to eat after the day’s work is over. You gotta have a nice meal and New Orleans is a good place for that.
Thematically, do you feel as though as though Andy’s passing affected the songs much?
I think it did, but it’s not obvious. Like, I didn’t write that song “The Great Divide” as a tribute to Andy. But maybe some people interpret it that way and I certainly don’t want it to take away somebody’s right to their interpretation. You can interpret it how you like. It’s absolutely in the undercurrent of this record.
And actually, there was more than just the Andy in this past year. There was so much heartache and loss and that inevitably finds its way into the songs. As the main songwriter for the band, I try to provide a voice for the band and to take the things that we’re going through and where we are as a band and put them into the music.
Andy’s presence on the record is probably most overt on “Drifting,” which is a song that Timmy [Carbone] brought the album; a wonderful piece. And what you hear on that is actually Andy: It’s an arpeggiated three-part thing that he did with a tenor ukulele and something else. The main body of the string work is Andy, with Timmy singing on it, and then down in New Orleans we elaborated on it then actually played along with what Andy had tracked. Then it segues into this other stuff where—and I think this was at Anders’ direction—we each took a little solo in the body of the song, so we were each soloing with Andy.
I’m curious to know what your gateway to guitar was. What was your first guitar and what kind of stuff did you play on it?
I think my first guitar was a Guild dreadnought that my parents bought me when I was kid. I wish I still had it! It was probably a great guitar, but I sold it somewhere along the way. I think I learned on that, but pretty quickly started playing electric. I had a nice [Gibson] SG until one day when I was fooling around with some friends, wrestling and stuff, and we landed on it and cracked the neck off of it.
It was a late-’60s SG that would probably be worth a lot of money now. Another one I wish I still had! At the time, I gave it to my friend Tom, and years later when I saw him, I asked, “What ever happened to that SG?” “Oh, my mom threw it away because it was broken.” If he’d fixed it, it would probably be worth $12,000 or something!
That’s the saddest story I’ve ever heard.
It is! [Laughs] I also had a Les Paul that I played, and I had an acoustic guitar that wasn’t real good. I can’t even remember what it was. I always played gigs and was making money at it, but right out of college—I went to Columbia University in New York City—I got a gig playing for a folk singer named Jack Hardy. I auditioned to play in his band, to be the harmony singer and second guitarist. He said, “I really like you. I’d like you to join my band. We’re going on tour in Europe in a couple of weeks. You’ve got the gig, but you’re not playing that guitar! Here’s what you’re playing,” and he handed me an incredible Martin D-18 that he had gotten from John Denver; he had lived in in Colorado. That was my introduction to Martin guitars, and for the length of the time that I was in his band, which was probably three years, I played his D-18, which is still probably the best guitar I’ve ever played in my life. Then, when I started doing my own music, I got my own Martin, which was a 00-18, and along the way I started playing 000s, too. I play a 00-18 now with Railroad Earth. It’s my second one. The first one just got beat to hell on the road, and I had to retire it.
What’s your electronics setup like? You have that nice clean tone that sounds both acoustic and electric depending on the moment and what you’re playing.
It’s really simple. I play through a Fender Super Reverb and three Boss pedals; that’s all I’ve ever used. I use a little delay and EQ and an overdrive for my lead stuff, straight into the amp; that’s it. I actually just picked up a wonderful 1964 Fender Super that sounds amazing, but I’m not going to bring it on the road; I’m gonna use it in the studio.
From the beginning you’ve played acoustic on stage.
I’ve got my own kind of sound with it. Even going back to the earliest days of From Good Homes [one of his previous groups] I played a Martin guitar through an amp. That was always my sound, ’cause I’ve always played in a band that’s kind of a rock thing.
With Andy’s passing, I had thought to, and I still might, take a dreadnought back out on the road. For a while, Andy and I both had guitars made for us by a company called Crafters of Tennessee. These were both wonderful guitars and I played that for a little bit, but the sonic textures Andy and I blended together, with me playing the smaller body Martin and him mostly playing the Crafters dreadnought—he occasionally played a Martin on a few songs, too—just sounded really good to me, and fit in well with the whole band. The Crafters was a bigger-bodied guitar with a bigger sound which blended really nicely on the parts we worked out with my guitar. With Andy gone, I thought I might try and get somewhere in between those sounds by bringing a dreadnought out on the road, but we now have other players in the band—Mike Robinson and Matt Slocum—so I’m kind of back doing what I was doing, and Mike is doing a great job covering a lot of the Andy parts.
Who were some of your guideposts as a guitarist growing up? Railroad Earth obviously has some deep roots in bluegrass, and you still hear that in a lot of songs you do, but the majority of your songs draw from many different styles. Who are some of the guitarists outside of the bluegrass world who informed your style?
Well, first of all, I’m not a flatpicker, you know? So with a lot of the flatpicking bluegrass stuff we play, it ends up in Mike’s hands, and in the past it was in Andy’s hands. That’s just not something that I ever really pursued. I played a little bit, but my style is more . . . when I play a lead, it brings out more of my influences from when I was playing electric music. A lot of people hear Jerry Garcia in my playing, and I think that’s mostly in the tone more than the actual note choices. My note choices tend to be melodic. It’s just the way I think: following melodies, making melodies. I’ve never really studied all the scales and that kind of thing. It’s melodies that move my soul.
Also, though, I think I might’ve picked up some of that in my early days from listening to Dickey Betts. I saw the Allman Brothers more than anyone; I loved them! And Dickey Betts was an amazing melodic player. He’d get these riffs going and keep them going and develop them—and that’s kind of what I try to do, too. So, he was a pretty strong influence.
In the bluegrass world I absolutely love David Bromberg. But in general, I’ve never been the type who would sit down and study someone’s style and try and cop it. I always just played my own music.
What are some of the other guitars you own? There seems to be a trend towards smaller instruments in some circles.
Really? Well, good, because I own a few of those! [Laughs] I have a really great koa one that was made by a guy named Paul Berger, and I have two other Paul Berger guitars. Peter Rowan has a couple of them as well. He made them for us several years ago. [Berger died in 2015.]
Paul had this incredible stash of wood that [C.F. Martin & Co. CEO] Chris Martin had given him. Paul had worked for Martin for many, many years and Chris really liked him. In fact, Paul did the restorations on Martin’s museum collection. But eventually he decided he’d had enough of the Northeast and he wanted to go somewhere warm so he moved down to Florida, where he was from originally. But before he left Martin, Chris gifted him an incredible stash of some of the best wood that Martin had from the ’20s and ’30s. And Paul took that and became this amazing [independent] guitar maker. So, I have three of those and I love them—the koa parlor, a D-28, and a really cool 00.