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Destination unknown

Expect the unexpected when Railroad Earth rolls into Tulsa



Railroad Earth

Photo by Erin Mills

Music journalists have a preoccupation with labeling Railroad Earth’s fluid, twangy sound. They fit pretty snugly, though perhaps unwillingly, into the bluegrass-Americana-jamband genre, but their marriage of mandolin, drums, electric guitar and the occasional saxophone nearly denies classification altogether. Labels can be tricky and misleading. When a show can take almost any form, how do you give fans consistency? 

“It’s a balance,” said RRE bassist Andrew Altman. Perhaps you can’t, and perhaps that’s the beauty of it. 

Back in 2001, the casual picking sessions between collaborators Todd Sheaffer, Tim Carbone, John Skehan, Andy Goessling, Carey Harmon and Dave Von Dollon began producing more original songwriting. That turned into a five-song demo at the suggestion of their future manager, Brian Ross, which turned into a spot at the Telluride Bluegrass Fest in Colorado, almost unheard of for a band who’d never even played a show together. Their first album, “The Black Bear Sessions,” came shortly thereafter. Five albums later, after saying goodbye to members Von Dollon and Johnny Grubb, bassist Andrew Altman joined Railroad Earth in 2010, completing the current outfit.  

Stepping into any established band comes with its fair share of pressure—let alone one with a history, chemistry, style and catalog like that of Railroad Earth, but Altman says the transition was beneficial to the band’s creative approach.

“The strength [of my joining the band] was more that I could approach things very objectively,” he said. “For me, I feel like that was an asset.” Certainly, part of the benefit in stepping into an established band is the fresh perspective it provides—a perspective which, to some degree, is bolstered by outside influences. 

“When you’re at that stage where you’re playing with one band a lot, sometimes it’s nice to listen to other music,” he said. “And yeah, sometimes it finds a way in, subconsciously. It almost relaxes your brain to hear something different.”

It’s hard to imagine Railroad Earth taking cues from an electronic funk band like Vulfpeck, to which Altman has been listening lately, but he says it’s more about recharging the batteries than re-imagining the sound. 

“Railroad Earth probably couldn’t be any more different than Vulfpeck, but it gives you a nice break,” he says. “Then, when you get back with your band, the style might be really interesting.” 

Perhaps it’s this fresh outlook—the mixing and melding of sounds and headspaces—that has shaped Railroad Earth’s recent work (arguably, their best yet). The band’s latest album, “The Last of the Outlaws,” was released a little more than a year ago. Songs like the four-part “All That’s Dead May Live Again,” “Face With a Hole: In Paradisum,” and “Hangtown Ball” feature a more free-flowing, swingy vibe and conjure more narrative style than any of the band’s previous albums. 

With the summer festival circuit (read: shorter sets and larger crowds) demanding most of Railroad Earth’s attention in the warmer months, the band looks forward to taking its newer material for a spin during this winter tour.

“There will definitely be some stuff from the new record,” Altman said. “Though I hesitate to call it new, at this point. It’s newish.” 

No strangers to playing in Tulsa, Railroad Earth is excited to get back to familiar territory, he said. “Oftentimes on tour, we might be playing a brand new room or arena where the sound is good, but Cain’s is cool because it’s got a historical thing going on too.”

Fans can expect a healthy dose of the inventive and explorative jams for which Railroad Earth has become known over the years—and potentially a few brand new tunes. “We can’t make any promises,” Altman said, regarding what surprises might be in store—which, coming from a band like his, I believe. “But we’ll see how it pans out.”


Railroad Earth with opener Shook Twins
7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 28
Cain’s Ballroom, 423 N. Main Street

Tickets start at $21 and can be purchased at the Cain’s box office or at CainsBallroom.com


Want more stories like this? Check out Joshua Kline's Broncho feature and Matt Cauthron's Q&A with longtime Tulsa band Whirligig.

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