The guys in jamgrass band Railroad Earth didn’t know they were getting into jam or bluegrass when they started out some two decades ago. Well, they were dabbling with string music and holding pickin’ parties, so they were certainly headed in a grassy direction. But RRE founding member/drummer Carey Harmon says, from there, “The band sort of happened.”
They thought, “This is fun, this is different. … It was a learning experience with us; there was a scene we were able to fit into that was new and original to us,” Harmon says.
How the guys behind RRE found themselves in newgrass/jamgrass/bluegrass/Americana/what-have-you is interesting considering where they’re from: New Jersey. See, you might catch an occasional pickin’ session around here, or head down to Salem County for the Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival once a year. And certainly many of our musicians, heralded and less so, have folk sensibilities; some might even throw a banjo into their tunes.
But, the point is, a blue/jam/new-grass haven we are not. As such, Harmon says the band, from Stillwater in Sussex County, has found a second home in Colorado, where there is a deep ’grass scene. Trips there early in their career—and return trips to festivals and Red Rocks—helped the band carve out its space in the scene and find an audience.
(For what it’s worth, coming back home to play has plenty of benefits, too, Harmon says: “It’s great because we’re home, for one. But it’s cool because you’re playing for friends and stuff here. We’re able to reach people through other friends we know, too.”)
Finding a community—whether here, in Colorado or, shit, anywhere people enjoy good, improvisational Americana—has been fulfilling, Harmon says, and integral to the band’s growth. Knowing they’re free to take musical risks, RRE can stretch at and pull on the boundaries of bluegrass, and supporters’ll go with them on the ride. As long as the tunes hit, then who cares?
“What’s great about this scene is how supportive it is,” Harmon says. “People obviously stick with you for a long stretch of time. They base their travel around seeing shows. They’re just very patient with you. So I feel like when we make a record, it’s wide open. It’s, ‘What do you want to do?’”
You can hear the evolution in RRE’s catalog: from the jaunty, more traditionally grassy tunes on the debut Black Bear Sessions (which they released ahead of their performance at the esteemed Telluride Bluegrass Festival); to their follow-up (and personal favorite) Bird in a House, which already has RRE delving into jammier tendencies; to their self-titled album which synthesizes in some straight-line rock; to their latest release All for the Song, which feels like a melding of where their musical flexibility has taken them over the decades.
All for the Song was the first album that RRE recorded outside of New Jersey, choosing to record in New Orleans with Anders Osborne; it was also the first time, Harmon says, that the band actually sat in a room with the express purpose of writing and recording.
The band had planned to make the trip a year or two earlier, but delayed it when founding member Andy Goessling got sick with cancer; he ultimately passed away in 2018. It was devastating, of course, and Harmon says the band had a choice about how to proceed: “We can go to our corners and deal with this on our own, or we can force ourselves into the studio and make a record.”
As it turned out, the decision to go out and make the record not only helped the music, but it helped the members of RRE grieve and reconnect, Harmon says.
“I think the coolest part of the thing was every night when we were done with a long day of writing and recording and arranging, we all went out to dinner. That sounds like not a big deal, but if you see a lot of touring bands, they’ll come into a restaurant and go to different tables,” Harmon says. “We went into the same restaurant… ate, drank. It was short of a shared grieving process; work all day and have a few drinks. It was weird because you spend so much time with these people, but we never really had that experience. It was an important time.”
Todd Carbone (violins/guitar/vocals) adds that the vision for the album was always bigger than the music, but losing Goessling added another level of depth to the sessions.
“From the beginning, the vision was more than just the music. We looked at this like a ‘destination’ record,” Carbone says. “Our past records were all made close to home or, in fact, at home. Andy’s passing was very much in the center of our thoughts and our hearts in the writing and recording of this album. Things were so shaken up that we thought it’d be a benefit to go away from all of the distractions and be together.”
As with other bands in the jam/bluegrass world, the studio albums are benchmarks; the live shows are where the music really comes to life. And RRE has delivered every time I’ve seen ’em; creative iterations of songs, tight vocal harmonies (not necessarily common in the jam world), instrument mastery, and, more than anything, a shitload of fun.
Harmon says the feeling is mutual, and though RRE may have backed into jamgrass years ago, its charms are enduring.
“Playing a song differently every night, I just take that for granted,” Harmon says. “If we were going out and doing tours and just doing a record, I can’t imagine it would be interesting.”