Billy Bragg is fine songwriter but I do enjoy it when he goes off piste like this but Shine A Light is rather more in Joe Henry’s territory. The album is subtitled “Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad” but the inclusion of MOR standards like ‘Gentle On My Mind’ and ‘Early Morning Rain’ stretch the point a bit.
The album opens with ‘Rock Island Line’, a prison song possibly referring to the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad In fact, the album was recorded during various stops on a railroad journey from Chicago to Los Angeles; no fancy studios so what you might take for found sound is simply what was happening around the musicians. The song recorded in Chicago was Jean Ritchie’s wonderful ‘The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore’ and you can trace their journey on the album website – or you will when the album is released in a couple of month’s time. So far, we know that ‘Railroad Bill’ was recorded in St. Louis but what happens in Fort Worth, El Paso and Tucson we’ll have to wait and see.
For a basically simple concept, Billy and Joe work in some neat tricks. They divide ‘Rock Island Line’ by singing half a line each on opposite channels (Billy is on the left, of course) and for ‘Lonesome Whistle’, Billy reaches down into his boots for a bass vocal line which he finds again for Sara Carter’s ‘Railroading On The Great Divide’. Essentially though, this is two guys, two guitars and a harmonica enjoying each other’s musical company. Johnny Cash’s ‘Waiting For A Train’ is another top track, perfectly suited to this laid-back approach as is Woody Guthrie’s ‘Hobo’s Lullaby’ but I’m still not sure about ‘Gentle On My Mind’.
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‘Midnight Special’ – somewhere in America: