I missed my chance, of course, just as many will ultimately miss their chances to experience America's vanishing frontier. As an integral part of that frontier, the railways are destined to vanish, too. But with KXCI-FM mainstay Michael Hyatt's Classic Railroad Songs best-selling series for Rounder, we can at least gain a sense of how deeply, and romantically, engrained in our collective heritage is the train--a frequent metaphor for the wandering soul, for rootlessness, even for escaping bad times in hopes of new horizons.
This, Volume 4, focuses on, as its title suggests, blues-flavored train songs; 14 country, bluegrass and roots-rock artists put their own essential stamps on both traditional and original material, and every cut is an all-out joy. In a departure from his previous three installments, Hyatt chose mostly contemporary artists for FTB, which further suggests that as long as there are songwriters, the genre will far outlive its physical iron-and-steel manifestation. (Even Bruce Springsteen has recorded a train song, "Downbound Train," on Born In The USA.)
Among the collection's highlights: Joe Ely's masterly, minor-chord reading of Butch Hancock's loneliness-draped "Boxcars"; Fred Eaglesmith's restless-troubadour confessional "I Like Trains"; Kathy Chiavola's upbeat, my-baby's-comin'-home bluegrass number "It Won't Be Long" (talk about lineage--as Hyatt outlines in the exceptionally well-annotated 24-page booklet, Chiavola learned it from a Tracy Nelson album, and Nelson had learned it from Aretha Franklin's first album); Marty Stuart's nocturnally-tinged, emotionally transcendent cover of Johnny Cash's "Blue Train"; and NRBQ's uproarious instrumental "Next Stop Brattleboro," originally recorded for a children's record and featuring not only musical effects designed to mimic the clangs and whistles of a locomotive, but the Brattleboro train's actual horn as well.
Other notable performers include Pure Prairie League, Asleep At The Wheel, Doc & Merle Watson, Don Edwards, and Laurie Lewis & Kathy Kallick.
No doubt you can hear these tunes, among the 400-odd train-themed numbers Hyatt's unearthed over the years, on his "Route 66" program, which airs on KXCI (91.3 FM) every Tuesday night at 7 p.m. Ring him up and request "My Baby Think She's A Train"--I betcha he's got a handful of different versions.