In their 25-year friendship, British folksinger Billy Bragg and his American cohort Joe Henry have performed only a handful of gigs together and recorded just one duet, “Dark as a Dungeon,” which appeared on Henry’s 1994 EP Fireman’s Wedding. But on Shine a Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad (Cooking Vinyl), the two sound as if they’ve been riding the rails together for decades. Indeed, Bragg and Henry recorded the album in rail stations along the Texas Eagle line, from Chicago to Los Angeles, tracking 13 songs in four days and over 2,700 miles.
The album picks up where Bragg’s Joe Henry-produced 2013 release Tooth & Nail left off, following in the dusty footsteps of that record’s cover of Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home.” The standards on Shine a Light—including “Hobo’s Lullaby,” “Midnight Special,” “Railroad Bill,” “Rock Island Line,” and “Waiting for a Train”—are as old as the stations where Bragg and Henry found a few not-so-quiet corners, cut two or three takes, and then boarded another train to another destination. But there’s something new about the album, too, as it finds an enduring harmony in the folk simplicity of two friends, two Gibsons, and one dream of rediscovering the old, weird America.
Who came up with the idea for the album?
Bragg I’d been thinking about it for awhile. I’ve always been interested in the beginnings of guitar music in my country in the mid-1950s, when Lonnie Donegan became the first British artist ever to get onto the charts playing guitar—and his first hit was Lead Belly’s “Rock Island Line.” So I’ve always had a place in my heart for railroad songs, and a few years ago, I was invited to take part in a project to celebrate the American/Swiss photographer Robert Frank. [The photography magazine] Aperture suggested I travel with an American photographer, Alec Soth, who asked me, “Is there anywhere in America you’ve always wanted to go?” And I suddenly thought to myself, “Rock Island—where the Rock Island Line comes from.”
So Alec and I got in a van, started down the Mississippi Valley, crossed over into Arkansas, and followed where the Rock Island Line used to go. The actual song is written about the line between Memphis and Little Rock, which doesn’t exist anymore, but the old Rock Island Line station is still one of the stops on the Texas Eagle. We stood there for 20 or 30 minutes, singing songs while people got on the train for Chicago, and from that experience, I conceived the idea of making an album about trains, riding the Texas Eagle from Chicago to Los Angeles.
Joe, what did you think when Billy approached you with the idea?
Henry Bill has been a friend of mine for more than 20 years, and I admire him as an artist as much as I love him as a human being. So when he said, “I’ve got a proposal,” my immediate response was, “Yes,” then, “Tell me what it is.” I’m always going to be interested in what Bill is thinking, and I quickly understood this was not a nostalgic project about how much we love the idea of trains. It was going to be about recognizing something that has become invisible.
If it’s not just a nostalgic project about your love of trains, then what are you trying to get at?
Bragg Before the railroads came, you could only build a city on the coast or on a river. The railroad allowed people to think beyond the horizon, and you still get that feeling in the songs. It was the internet of the old, weird America, connecting people beyond their wildest dreams. To travel faster than a horse and to do it all day and all night. The railroad made America, and that’s what we were trying to tap into—not the America I’m familiar with, but the places that were important 100 years ago. The Texas Eagle cuts right through the heart of it, so you see the enormity of what it took to build the rails and the priorities of people who are long gone. It’s like you’re following a dry river bed.
What do you love about these songs?
Henry They’re a part of our cultural architecture, and a lot of them are just beautiful pieces of writing. I’m a person who really loves mid- and slow-tempo minor-key ballads, so “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” and “In the Pines” are really attractive, seductive to me, with a meaning that goes beyond the words that travel along the top of its wave.
‘I quickly understood this was not a nostalgic project about how much we love the idea of trains. It was going to be about recognizing something that has become invisible.’
What made you choose “Gentle on My Mind?”
Henry That was a song I bought as a 45, brand new, when I was eight years old, and loved it ever since. It was a song we hadn’t expected to play on this trip, but the very first night, we were sitting up in an empty sleeper car, and something Bill played reminded me of the descending line. So I started playing it, just for the brotherhood of putting it up into the air. And when I realized it related thematically to what we were doing, I was doubly delighted it had offered itself up, out of the atmosphere.
Would you say that each of the songs has some resonance with you?
Bragg Well, that’s the air of discovery. “Gentle on My Mind” got a lot of plays in our house when I was growing up, so I’ve known it for a long time. “Early Morning Rain” is one of the earliest songs I learned to play as a busker in my teens. When I was in the Scouts, “Midnight Special” was one of the songs we used to sing around the campfire, because everybody knew “Midnight Special,” everybody could join in.
What makes these versions feel like Bill and Joe?
Bragg It’s a matter of sitting down and bringing our perspectives to these songs. The version of “Rock Island Line” is not very similar to the Lonnie Donegan version that began the skiffle boom—it’s closer to the original recorded at Cummins State Prison by John Lomax and Lead Belly. We took it back to that call-and-response version, throwing it back and forth to one another. Some of these songs are very familiar to people, and in some way, we’re just trying to make them our own.
After all these years, what was it like to finally do a full album together?
Henry It felt inevitable. The idea was always there, waiting for the moment that would allow it, and when it finally came, it felt incredibly natural.
How did you decide which guitar to bring?
Bragg I have a workhorse guitar, a Gibson J-45 that I’ve had for about three years. I know it will stay in tune and play in any situation, so I was very confident. Because I’m basically a rhythm player, I’m going to be strumming through these songs, while Joe does the single-note playing.
Henry In the last ten years, I’ve developed a different voice for myself as a guitar player, away from being the strummer and into a more orchestral approach to playing, which owes a lot to my deep love of American standards. Because Bill is playing in standard tuning and covering the rhythm so well, I could play more single figures to connect the chord changes. I felt this great freedom to play in a way that’s different from when I’m playing alone and have to make sure I’m keeping the rhythm alive.For me, bringing one guitar is trickier than it is for Bill, because I play in open tunings and I play really old guitars, mostly small-bodied Gibsons from the early ’30s. They’re lightly constructed, which is part of the beauty of their sound, but they don’t like to be moved from one tuning to the next—they’re not stable that way. So I brought the one that was the hardiest: a mid-’30s Gibson L-00 with a neck that feels like a baseball bat, the one that wouldn’t hold us up when we needed to move quickly. It’s exactly the same year and model as the guitar Woody Guthrie is most often photographed playing. If I could only take one, I knew that one would be the best.
Were you thinking about Woody on the trip?
Henry We’re always thinking about Woody. Absolutely. Traveling the stretch between El Paso and Los Angeles, looking out at that arid landscape in the early evening, we were talking about Woody and thinking about what it meant to find a way across that daunting landscape, knowing there was something better on the other side if you could just survive the trip. He was very much in our thoughts, and from one song to the next, we talked about which one of us would be Woody and which one would be Cisco Houston.
‘We came looking for Robert Johnson, and instead we found the spirit of Jimmie Rodgers.’
What part of this album sounds like Cisco?
Henry Just the idea of two distinctly different musicians coming together. Cisco had a real elegance, a formal approach, versus Woody’s rusty-blade approach to writing, playing, and performing. And yet, we both believe Cisco was Woody’s most natural, most productive singing partner. Their differences were so great that there was never any stepping on the beat, because they were occupying different roles. By the same token, even though Bill and I are influenced by a lot of the same people, our styles are so different that there’s a natural place to come together without ever finding ourselves doing the same job.
What surprised you most about this trip?
Bragg How little fuss we produced by putting down two microphones and singing a song. Do you know Union Station in Los Angeles? It has a couple of open courtyards, and we found this covered walkway—like a subway tunnel, really—open at either end to the courtyards. There was a corner where nobody could see us, but at the same time, we could hear the birds. So when you listen to “Early Morning Rain,” you can hear the birds singing. I think we may have woken them up. It was ten past five [a.m.] when we finished “Early Morning Rain”—the end of the line, just a short way from Joe’s house, and we felt we nailed it.
Henry I’m surprised how emotional I found it. To be traveling together, to be sitting up late at night on a train, sharing bunks in this tight little compartment. There was something about engaging in that music, joining a tradition that’s been here long before us, and seeing our brotherhood, our humanity in relation to others. That’s emotional. That was a big part of our process, and that’s what I hear now.
THE GHOST OF JIMMIE RODGERS
Stopping in San Antonio, Texas, Bragg and Henry spent a night in the Gunter Hotel, the site of Robert Johnson’s 1936 recording session for the American Record Corporation.
“Strangely enough, I got the room where Johnson recorded ‘Sweet Home Chicago,’” Bragg says. “Number 414. It’s actually a corner suite, and my understanding is Johnson recorded in the office while the engineer used the bedroom as the control room. We didn’t get into the hotel till 2 a.m., so everybody was totally knackered, and it was too late for me to do anything but lay in bed and wait to see if anyone turned up in the middle of the night, offering to teach me to play the blues in exchange for my soul.
“The next morning, we had a chat over breakfast, and I said, ‘Let’s do a song in the room.’ So we got the sound recordist, and just before we checked out, we recorded the song that was next in our plan, Jimmie Rodgers’ ‘Waiting for a Train.’ It was only subsequently we discovered Jimmie Rodgers lived at the Gunter in the late ’20s and early ’30s. We came looking for Robert Johnson, and instead we found the spirit of Jimmie Rodgers.”
WHAT JOE HENRY PLAYS
Over the past decade, Henry has been experimenting with different kinds of strings. “I was dedicated to very dead strings,” says Henry, who uses Martin Retro nickel-alloy strings on his favorite, lightest Gibson L-00s. “I used to only change strings when I broke one. But when my playing changed, thanks to open tunings, I started looking for more orchestral clarity. I had been shortchanging what it meant to try different strings, so I’ve spent a lot of time experimenting with different gauges to find that balance I need: heavier strings for a little more tension or lighter strings to allow the space the vibrate more. I used to think that light strings meant wimpier sound and heavier strings meant bolder sound.
“That was completely foolish,” he adds. “My friend Mark Stutman at Folkway Music was the one who got me turned around, saying, ‘Don’t think of lighter strings as being lighter sound. Think of them as strings that allow the body of your guitar to speak with more overtone, to move more, to resonate more. Not to tighten it up, clench it down, and make it colder, which can happen when you put heavy strings on a light guitar.’
“I can’t quite put into words what these nickel strings are doing with my Nick Lucas Special, but there’s something beautiful going on that’s really turning my head.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.