“Brit” Billy Bragg and “Yank” Joe Henry, have recently collaborated on one of the most unique and interesting musical projects in recent memory. Modernizing the concept of “field recordings,” Bragg and Henry used several American railroad stations as their “fields.” Their exploits travelling and recording at the stops along Amtrak’s Texas Eagle railway route from Chicago to Los Angeles are well-documented at the website for their new record Shine a Light which was released on this day.
In town for Nashville’s annual Americana musical extravaganza, the pair made several appearances, most notably one in the halls of the city’s Union Station hotel, once a historic railway station. At this late Friday afternoon performance at Grimey’s record store, Bragg prefaced “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” with reference to its appropriateness to the current state of the Union Station.
As far as Grimey’s in-stores go, it always pays to get there early to secure a good viewing spot, especially for something that reached near capacity like this one did. But, it also usually allows you to sometimes witness the sound check which this evening included two complete songs from the record as well as Mr. Bragg testing his mike with a few lines from “Pinball Wizard.” (I later asked him if he was auditioning for The Who’s upcoming acoustic Tommy shows in London.)
It’s a given that neither Bragg nor Henry have the vocal skills to be on The Voice. But, their raw-sounding vocals perfectly suit this collection of traditional songs written during hard times in America. Harmony-wise it was far from the Louvin Brothers, but that didn’t seem to matter, although they did sound their best when on took the lead over the other.
As with any Billy Bragg performance, what happens between the songs tends to matter as much as the music itself. In addition to lamenting over the demise of passenger railways in the USA, Billy also told us the meaning behind Lead Belly’s version of “The Midnight Special.” (A light from a train in Houston that would shine into Sugar Land Prison.)
A surprise to the set was John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind” which sounded great although its railway reference is rather vague.
Henry closed the set with Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You” which he tied to trains by way of the story how Bob wrote about a third of the John Wesley Harding record on the train from New York City to record in Nashville with Union Station as his final destination. Brother-in-law to Madonna, Henry also had an audience member smell a visible vinyl copy of Like a Prayer to see if it was still patchouli-scented. (It wasn’t.)
Shine a Light is a fabulous collection of songs that is well worth a listen. Here’s a photo of Henry’s set list as notated on Union Station Hotel note paper.
- Lonesome Whistle (sound check)
- Hobo’s Lullaby (sound check)
- Railroad Bill
- The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore
- Rock Island Line
- In the Pines
- Gentle on My Mind
- The Midnight Special
- Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You
Billy Bragg—vocals and acoustic guitar
Joe Henry— vocals and acoustic guitar