Earlier this year, Billy Bragg and Joe Henry set off on a journey. They boarded a train in Chicago, bound for Los Angeles. Each time the train stopped for more than 20 minutes in cities like St. Louis and San Antonio, they'd grab their guitars, hop off, find the waiting room and record an old railroad song. The result of this journey is an album called Shine A Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad.
Bragg has been weaving folk and punk with protest music since the late '70s, when he first started busking around London. You can hear his passion for American songwriters such as Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly on this record. Henry is an American singer and songwriter with 13 albums of his own. He's also produced so many great records for others, including Rodney Crowell, Lisa Hannigan, Bonnie Raitt — and Bragg himself.
This concept record could be seen as a nostalgia trip, but both Bragg and Henry will emphatically say that it's not. These songs and this journey celebrate the modern railroad as a major economic engine and a still-vital form of transportation. The songs are filled with mythic poetry and the metaphoric romance inherent in train songs, but the vitality in the performances keeps the songs current. You can hear that behind my desk as well as you might in a rail station.
Shine A Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad is available now (iTunes) (Amazon).
- "Rock Island Line"
- "Hobo's Lullaby"
- "Midnight Special"
Producers: Bob Boilen, Niki Walker; Audio Engineer: Josh Rogosin; Videographers: Niki Walker, Nicole Boliaux; Production Assistant: Anna Marketti; Photo: Claire Harbage/NPR.
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