Interview with John Skehan
by Andrew McConnell
Railroad Earth has proven itself to be one of the best modern electrified bluegrass acts on the touring circuit. The group offers lyrical mastery combined with their instrumental proficiency that thrives live in concert. They have performed at the most prestigious festivals and venues around the country, but have never lost sight of where it all began. John Skehan (mandolin) of Railroad Earth spoke with me on several topics about the current state of live music, traveling, song-writing and much more.
Andrew McConnell – Mainstream music may be dead, but live music certainly isn’t. You have been around the scene for quite some time. Why do you believe this phenomena of live music continues to exist today?
John Skehan – It seems to me that people in this world really make live music a part of their lifestyle. Festivals throughout the summer time and bands that will do multiple night runs in one town really cater to that because people plan their vacations and off time around it and kind of make it a pilgrimage. It is part of their life, it is not a casual thing such as “Oh ok I’ll go do this”. They are very much “I will be there all three nights, and then I will go to the next thing”. They are just that dedicated to it, and I think the music being improvised enables the fans feel like they are a part of something that is vibrant and happy and they are not just going to hear a band play a song the same way they heard it on the radio. They are there because they want to know why it’s going to change, what is happening, the bands are challenging themselves, doing something different, which really separates them from the older model, the mainstream.
AM: Just looking at the set lists you have in front of you. You’ve got the setlist from your show last year at this venue. You have written out the different key changes for different jams of each song. Could you tell us a little more about this element of change? Doesn’t it keep it interesting for you guys?
JS: Yes, a big part of it is us keeping ourselves on our toes and seeing how we can change and grow. An awareness too that there are people here who were here last time, but perhaps were also at the Thursday night show in Richmond who are coming tonight. So how do you mix it up and make it different for them, make it different for us, and also be aware of maybe some people who walked in for the very first time. They don’t care if it is something we have not heard in three weeks, they just want to hear something good. So you always want to put your best foot forward and keep things always changing.
A lot of you are multi-instrumentalists. How do you think think that helps expand the range of opportunities for your sound both live and in the studio composition process as well? This helps define your unique sound in many ways, you can even switch and play the Zuki.
JS: The guiding line behind all of it is what works best for the song. So you always start out with what Todd brings in, what instrumentation does the song want? Usually, there is no random “Oh let’s play random things just because we can.” Everything seems to work. If something has very obvious flavor to it, we got a secret weapon in Andy who can play penny whistle or Irish flute or two saxophones at once if it’s an R&B thing. It’s just what works, what seems to fit the nature of the song best. It gives a lot to choose from and therefore we can move from different genres, different types of tunes, and cover all bases.
You guys have a variety of songs, anything from “The Last of the Outlaws” which is more of a ballad of sorts and you’ve got more “jamgrass” based songs such as “Like A Buddah”. You’re able to change it up as a result of you guys being such diverse musicians.
JS: Yea, and I’ll use Andy as the example, because he plays everything. He maintains his identity no matter what instrument he is playing and the band, even though we mix things up, it maintains an identity. There is no cut and dry. Everybody, no matter what they are playing, their personality comes through it, and, therefore, the personality of the band still comes through.
RRE is more electrified than some other Bluegrass acts on tour. While some in the bluegrass realm may disagree, I think in the case of Railroad Earth specifically, there is a clear benefit to your more electrified style. Do you feel that this approach in some ways allows you to take bluegrass in a direction that it has not necessarily done before?
JS: I think that is the key thing to understand about bluegrass music. It was an innovation in the 40s, Bill Monroe did something that nobody had done before. We never set out by any means to be a bluegrass band. Back to the earliest days of, before we even knew it was a band, we were gathering, a couple of us together, writing new songs,
As I said before, it just seemed to want acoustic instruments. And the nature of the lyrics and the style of music like Black Bear, one of the first things he put together, and you listen to Todd start playing that part of the song, and I remember vividly working it out on his yard, and it was like a beautiful Indian summer day, unseasonably warm for October or November or whenever we were there– uh, and standing around outside working it out and we looked over at one point and sure enough about 30 yards away was this big black bear out at the edge of the woods stopped and kinda looked at us for a minute and went on its way and about its business (laughs).
Point of the story is that I can remember Tom bringing that song out and, sure, it sounded like it should be violin and mandolin and Andy playing guitar in an alternate tuning. But there was nothing about the song that said Hammond organ and Les Paul guitar. So we never set out to be a bluegrass band, it was just what the songs wanted. But we all came from such different backgrounds, and everybody largely from a rock and roll background as well, that it was very natural to plug in and say “Ok what can we do with this,” especially as we began touring, and, yeah we have drums so we’re going to amplify ourselves, and we are going to experiment. There was never any “Let’s try to take bluegrass and change it.” We were just doing what we were doing.
But this goes back to what I said before, that I really believe One Road was breaking boundaries, and he put together the band that became the Bluegrass Boys and was changing things up in country music, and I also kinda believe that while he was inventing bluegrass, he started to invent rock and roll a little bit and left it for somebody else to finish. You know, “The Prominence” and “Back Beat” and some of those songs, you can hear echoes of them in the second song Elvis Presley ever recorded, “Blue Moon Kentucky”. There was always a drive and a change to it. And it seemed to be a logical step. Why not take it into the rock and roll world but use the chamber ensemble nature of bluegrass music and the mandolin, violin, bass, acoustic guitar, all interlocked and weaved together and playing together very much like a string quartet or chamber ensemble.
AM: Tell me a little bit about the song“Grandfather Mountain.” I have had some personal experiences on Grandfather Mountain with friends and family in the Linville area, such incredible landscapes in the Blue Ridge Mountains. What inspired you to write the song?
JS: We have played music on that mountain a couple times and the summer before, prior to working on this album, we kinda stepped in as hosts and headliners of the Music on the Mountain Top Festival. It’s just a stunningly beautiful sight for a festival. It’s just great. And some months later Todd showed up. I believe he started writing the song while we were there, probably very quietly and maybe in his own head, ya know, because I had no idea. I hadn’t heard anything about it, like “Hey this would be a great idea for a song,” and some months later he showed up and said, “Oh I’m working on this song about Grandfather Mountain, the festival down in Boone,” you know, and in Todd’s way, he told you something that obviously, you know you have a relationship with, you know the sights and the place, but he took it and made something very personal about it. Took it from a perspective that, you know, might not immediately occur to anybody else in terms of writing it from the Mountain’s perspective, looking at it as the oldest thing on the planet.
AM: A lot of your songs are about life, struggle, celebration, family, friends and your experiences on the road? How does life on the road help you grow and evolve as a musician and as a band?
JS: Well it had an awful lot to do with the band learning how to be a band, especially in the beginning. We were honestly, during the early years, on the road a lot more than we are now. We have found the same logical schedule now. Well not always logical– there are sections of the year that are absolutely nuts (laughs). Early on we would go on for 8 weeks at a time, and all 7 of us at that point sitting in a little van, you know, cramped for hours, driving over night, you know endlessly, just doing crazy crazy stuff. But a lot of that brought a ton of unusual life experiences, and lots of people we have met along the way and musically first off helped us learn what this is, this band and this music, which I think still continues to grow and change.
it’s also, I think, being on the road is a whole lot of everything all at once, which is what life is too. And it does put you in this place of things that really suck one minute, and then you turn a corner and you go “How did I get here? This is beautiful. We just met the most wonderful people and they did the nicest thing for us,” and you couldn’t have seen it coming, you know. So it keeps you in that kind of state of flux.
There’s a lot of songs that have come out of it. Elko, which wound up on the live album, because we used to stop back in our endless, endless tours out on the west coast, and that was one of the first 24 hour stops out in California, and we’d end up in Elko at this cheap casino hotel, and a lot of mayhem would ensue (laughs). Yeah, just people we have met over the years and have turned up in songs — everything from Grandfather Mountain to last night, we played at the end of the set a song Todd wrote called “RV,” and it was essentially inspired by Phil and Stacy, our tour manager and merch lady, his wife. And when we first met them they had just bought an RV and were contemplating retiring and said “Can we follow you guys around?” and we said “Sure why not?” and now they work for us, or work with us I should say. And that’s about them and their RV and one day packing up and saying “To hell with it.” That is something we have been blessed with along the way. A lot of people have reached out, sometimes with very, very touching stories about difficult life events and things and have told us how much the music has helped them, which I just can’t say how humbling that is and how that makes you step back from yourself for a minute.
* A special thanks to Perry and John for the interview and Randy for edits.