The Railsplitters - from just friends to bluegrass and beyond hot shots
Have you heard about the hair dresser, the therapist, the teacher, the French student and the air traffic controller? It’s no joke. These are some of the trades pursued, and in some cases still practised, by Colorado bluegrass band the Railsplitters, who are about to release their second album, The Faster It Goes, and play their first dates in Scotland after making a big impression back home with their crowdfunded, self-titled debut CD.
It all started inauspiciously when the group’s singer, Lauren Stovall got a gig in one of Denver’s less salubrious music venues and billed it as Lauren & Friends.
“We’d known each other a while and we’d been playing together at informal picking sessions but we weren’t a band as such,” says the Railsplitters’ banjo player and main songwriter, Dusty Rider. “The gig wasn’t the best experience in some ways because when we got there we discovered that we’d been double-booked and we ended up playing a little earlier in the evening than we had originally planned. But that was better than not playing at all and we had a great time, so we decided to see if we could make a go of things as a band. Leslie [Ziegler], our bass player, came up with the name, based on the mascot of a local school district, and we started putting gigs in the diary.”
Many of these early gigs were weddings and it became quite a challenge to see how a bluegrass band could fulfil happy couples’ requests for songs that were often quite far removed from the Railsplitters’ original influences such as bluegrass founder Bill Monroe, the Louvin Brothers and Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs. As Rider says, transposing Bob Marley songs onto fiddle, mandolin and banjo wasn’t on their to-do list when they first got together. The bookings kept coming in, though, so they must have done something right and within a year or so of that first gig in 2012, they were beginning to work on their own terms and play their own songs.
“I’d actually studied composition at college,” says Rider, who worked as a railroad brakeman before training as an aircraft controller in Alaska. “But those studies weren’t necessarily a great grounding for writing songs because they took all the melody and tonality out of my writing. So, to begin with, Lauren and Pete [Sharpe], our mandolin player, probably came up with most of the ideas until gradually I seem to have become the main songwriter.”
A lot of the songs on both of the group’s albums have a classic quality, as if they might have been written back in the 1950s, and yet they also sound new. Part of the reason for this, says Rider (and yes, Dusty Rider is his real name), might be due to the arrangements.
“We’ve all played with various people on the Colorado music scene and I’ve toured with some musicians who are known more widely, including Cahalen Morrison and Eli West, who I know have been to Scotland a fair bit,” says Rider. “So there’s quite a lot of experience in the group and we all just tend to pitch in ideas until we come up with something that sounds right to us. I don’t think any of us comes up with a set way of presenting a song – we leave it fairly open to interpretation. Plus, we take inspiration from groups who have their roots in bluegrass but go beyond the perceived confines of that style. I’m not ashamed to say that Punch Brothers have been a big inspiration to me and probably all of us. In fact, when I heard their Who’s Feeling Young Now album, I pretty much took that as permission to get busier writing songs and trying out more new things.”
These days audiences can really get behind musicians and bands by financing the making of albums through schemes such as Kickstarter and it’s a fair measure of the public’s esteem if they put their hands in their pockets for an album they haven’t yet heard. Both of the Railsplitters albums having been produced on this basis, says Rider, is both humbling and encouraging.
“For the first album we did, people really opened their wallets and although we’d been playing some of the songs and instrumentals live, they obviously trusted us to come up with the goods,” he says. “And I suppose if we go to them again and ask for their help and they open their wallets for the second time, then we’re earning their trust. It’s not something you can take for granted but in a way it’s a spur to go on and do your best work and keep striving to get better.”
From The Herald, May 27, 2015