Billy Bragg’s latest album, Shine a Light, is an exploration in song of the great American railroad.
“It kind of sprang out of a book I’ve been writing for the last couple of years about skiffle,” explains the 59-year-old of the genesis of a project that he recorded as he journeyed through the US heartland with longtime friend Joe Henry on board the Texas Eagle railroad service.
“That led me to listen to a lot of old songs from the 1950s – [Lonnie] Donegan and all those guys – and I realised there’s a hell of a lot of songs about trains. I was trying to think about why there were so many train songs and it got me looking at the role of the railway in culture and it sprang out of that, really.
“Then a couple of years ago I did a trip along the Rock Island Line – it’s not there any more but I went to just look at it and see where it was. In the context of that I got really up close to American trains and realised it might be possible to do this. They tend to stop for a lot longer than British trains in big city stations. British trains tend to spend five minutes maximum but American trains outside of the commuter areas, the ones that are going across the country, they’re much more leisurely and they stop for half an hour sometimes – that would give you the opportunity to find somewhere and record.”
Fifty-six-year-old, North Carolina-born Henry, who’s produced records by Allen Toussaint, Hugh Laurie, Aimee Mann and Solomon Burke, alongside 13 albums of his own, was the first person in Bragg’s thoughts when it came to a choice of collaborator.
“I have a very strong understanding with him, first and foremost,” Bragg says. “I know he likes roots music and although he’s a really great record producer he’s not really precious about the sounds that are happening in the space. He made an album – not his last one but the one before – in which he allowed the sounds from outside the studio while he was recording to come onto the tapes between the songs – cars passing, dogs barking, the wind blowing, stuff like that – so I realised that he would understand that we wouldn’t be in pristine conditions and that some of the sounds from the railroad would be part of the record.”
Bragg, who was born in the Essex town of Barking and now lives in Dorset, admits to be fascinated by the mythology surrounding the American railroad. “I think the railroad in the American sense is second only to the Old West,” he says, “and while you can dress up as a cowboy and ride a horse and pretend you’re in the Old West you can actually still buy a ticket for the railroad. It’s still there and it still has that same power, I think, that it had back in the day when people like Hank Williams were singing about it.”
As well as a means of transporting people and freight, there was a romance to the railway. “For Americans it was the thing that offered the possibility of change of circumstance. You’d be in the middle of this huge continent and you could get on a train and in a day or two be at the coast, be in Chicago or be in the West – that changed everything for them. It’s not so visceral for us living on a small island, in many ways our songs of change have all been sea shanties and about getting on a boat in order to change your circumstances, but for the Americans it was getting on a train.
“It gives them possibilities – aspiration, escape from a bad love affair or the law, travelling to see someone you love or someone you love being taken away. There’s so many metaphorical train songs that are not just about being on train, they’re about what it means. If you think of Folsom Prison by Johnny Cash it’s not the prison bars that are making him hang his head and cry, it’s hearing the train whistle – the train makes him realise that he’s no longer free.”
Shine a Light includes songs originally recorded by Jimmie Rodgers, Lead Belly, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Glenn Campbell and Gordon Lightfoot.
“One of the reasons was songs we could sing convincingly – that was one of the biggest criteria because it had to hang together as a record,” says Bragg. “But we had a narrative that we were trying to follow. Coming from skiffle, there would be a lot of Lead Belly songs there – I think there are four on the record, he’s kind of our guiding star – but we even threw in a couple from our own lifetimes – Early Morning Rain and Gentle on My Mind. We didn’t want it to be about nostalgia, we wanted it to be about taking the songs back to where they came from and seeing if they were still viable now and seeing if the railway was still viable now. That’s why we took it on the train rather than made it in the studio.”
As for the practicalities of hopping off the train to record songs at stations as they went, Bragg says there were surprisingly few obstacles. “Two guys playing guitars in a railway station no one’s really interested in that because it’s something that you very often see so there wasn’t a big fuss,” he says. “The fact that we were being filmed and we had microphones maybe people gave us a second look, but other that we didn’t really get hassled at all – apart from Fort Worth where the railway station there doubles as a bus station so there’s a lot of security about and they asked us to move on so we had to go back onto the platform on the other side of the train where the security guards couldn’t see us and we recorded there in the end rather than in the spot we’d originally chosen.”
In the autumn Billy Bragg and Joe Henry toured the USA playing songs from Shine a Light. Bragg says it felt timely: “San Antonio to Los Angeles most of it follows the Mexican border and this was at a time when Trump was talking about building a wall. At El Paso the border’s so close you could throw a stone from the railway station into Juarez in Mexico so we were up close and personal with that border and with that landscape so it did resonate. We talked a lot about it. It was just about when Brexit went down so we talked about that as well with the American crew.”
Billy Bragg and Joe Henry play at the Grand Opera House, York on Tuesday January 24. http://shinealight-joehenry.billybragg.co.uk/