Review: ‘Americana Railroad’ Rides the Rails in Praise of Trains

Various Artists/Americana Railroad/BMG
Four out of Five Stars

Videos by American Songwriter

Credit Carla Olson, an erstwhile Americana devotee, with assembling an all-star ensemble to pay tribute to her lifelong love of America’s trains. Her connection began as a child when she walked along the railroad tracks on her way home from school and then listened to the distant sounds of the train engines as they barreled their way to their far destinations well into the night.

Given the cast of contributors, it seems that she wasn’t the only one who found that fascination with the railways. The other participants include John Fogerty, Dave Alvin, Rocky Burnette, Dom Flemons, Stephen McCarthy, Peter Case, Paul Burch, Fats Kaplan, Gary Myrick, Robert Rex Waller Jr., James Intveld, ex Byrds bassist John York, and Kai Clark, son of Gene Clark, the man Olson frequently collaborated with following her stint with roots-rock pioneers, The Textones.

Not surprisingly then, Americana Railroad has the advantage of plying a familiarity factor. There are innumerable classics included here, most of which form the very fabric of classic Americana folklore. “Mystery Train,” “This Train,” “500 Miles,” and, naturally, “City of New Orleans” are plucked from that essential firmament, and ought to be well known even to those with a passing interest in America’s musical tradition. That said, there are some intriguing choices as well, including Gary Myrick’s tenacious turn on the Yardbirds’ “Train Kept A’ Rollin,” a brassy—and sassy—take on CSN’s “Marrakesh Express” by Dustbowl Revival, and Olson’s own revisit to Procol Harum’s didactic “Whiskey Train,” which she shares here with Paul McCartney’s longtime sideman, Brian Ray.

Still, the track that best sums up that love of those steam engines that crisscrossed the far-distant environs of the American frontier is the sole song written expressly for the album, “Southwest Chief,” Dave Alvin’s tender tribute to the western railways. So too, Dom Flemons’ “Steel Pony Blues,” sung from the perspective of an ex-slave and Pullman porter, serves as a reminder of the possibilities that occurred when America’s forebears rode the rails in search of a better tomorrow. Likewise, when Olson and McCarthy express their fondness for those distant memories on the album’s closing track, “I Remember the Railroad,” the sentiment is shared with an emphatic intent. 

Taken in tandem, this music is both memorable and meaningful. More than simply a collection of classic songs, Americana Railroad gives reason to rejoice.

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