Skittering across the soot-and-gum-spattered tiles of a bustling station somewhere between Chicago and Los Angeles, two black-clad likely lads burst from a barely-stopped hot locomotive, guitars and a spaghetti-mess of microphone cables swinging around their necks.
Kit in place – and with one eye on the station clock and the other on a flustered conductor – the two boys begin belting out a tune, their voices – rustbelt-metal gruff on one side and a weathered Southern Angel on the other – soar through the station, dancing around the eaves, turning the heads of commuters and pigeons alike.
“It was all a bit Keystone Cops! The first recording was us running around looking for somewhere to set up, but by the second day we had more of a handle on how to set up, play, break it all down and get back on the train. We looked to record a couple of takes while the train was in the station; the only real criterion was that we needed to be in visual contact with the conductor, so we could tell when he was calling all aboard. Most of the time we set up in the waiting room, but once or twice we were forced to record on the platform.”
The songs punctuated throughout by spontaneous station atmospherics are the fruit of a project that saw Billy Bragg and Joe Henry board a Los Angles-bound train at Union Station Chicago, looking to reconnect with the culture of American railroad travel and the music it inspired. The idea came to Bragg while working on a documentary about the Rock Island Line.
“I became aware of the huge number of American railroad songs and how they were often about much more than just trains. The railroad was a metaphor for freedom, loss, aspiration, escape – even death. You don’t get that depth in songs about cars or trucks.”
Inspiration came too from a critical moment in British culture when pop music took an era-defining turn from jazz-based to guitar-led. “In 1956 Lonnie Donegan became the first British artist to get into the charts playing a guitar. The majority of the material of that time was made up of railroad songs, and he inspired a generation of kids to learn the three chords necessary to play skiffle, an indigenous adaptation of American roots music.”
It is incumbent upon all artists – not just musicians – to come up with a creative resistance to those who would seek to divide us
That hit – opening a new chapter in western musical history – was Rock Island Line. With the concept by now in rude shape, it was time to bring in singer-songwriter Joe Henry. “Joe and I have known each other since the late eighties and he produced my last studio album, so with his production and arranging skills – plus his love of American roots music – he was an obvious choice for the project. I really enjoy Joe’s company, both on and off stage.”
Covering near 3,000 miles of gleaming track in a scant four days, the two embraced the idea of the great Western journey, the mood and motion of the places they travelled infusing their recordings. “Railroading On The Great Divide was recorded in El Paso because we were due to cross the Great Continental Divide before we reached the next station. The ambiance of the spot where we set up was a more important factor in choosing which song to record than the place itself however. If it was quiet enough to record a ballad, we’d pull one out. If it was noisy, we’d choose a belter like John Henry.”
Uniquely resurrecting old American standards, Shine A Light is a tight concept album in a world where such things are increasingly thin on the ground. But long journeys, of course, aren’t romance from end-to-end. “Outside of the North East Corridor passenger trains have to give way to freight, with serious consequences for the timetable. There were times when we were stationary for an hour or two which ended up cutting into our wait time at some stations, but we were able to record everything we had in our schedule. We even got into LA an hour early, which sounds good, but we were due in at 5.30am. Being roused from our bunks at 4.30am wasn’t great.”
Travelling through the heartland of the Midwest and down the Mississippi Valley before turning west to follow the Mexican border all the way to Los Angeles, they passed through more than just states, and through one of the most extraordinary election periods in American history.
“We were travelling when Trump was talking about building his wall on the border and just a few months before the EU referendum. Joe and I talked a lot about what was going on in our respective countries and how a mood of belligerent pessimism seemed to have taken hold.”
With their journey – for the moment – over, the artists who delivered an elegiac tribute to a previous era know that this startling new era in American, indeed western, history will be written by the artists as much as the politicians.
“Music has the ability to make you feel empathy for people that you don’t know, breaking through the shell of cynicism that we construct around ourselves. We need that now more than ever and I feel that it is incumbent upon all artists – not just musicians – to come up with a creative resistance to those who would seek to divide us.”
Billy Bragg and Joe Henry play Playhouse Whitley Bay on Wednesday 25th January. Shine A Light is out now via Cooking Vinyl.