Graded on a Curve: VA, Americana Railroad

Released on double vinyl in a limited edition last November for Record Store Day Black Friday (with copies still available in stores), the compilation Americana Railroad arrives on compact disc and digital June 17 via Renew/BMG. Per the title, the collection’s dual focus is songs in celebration of trains from inside the idiom of contemporary Americana. Working in the comp’s favor is an approach that’s wider, and often louder, than the norm, and if it’s not a knockout overall, the album’s pleasures are surprisingly consistent as the train theme avoids the clichéd with a few surprising twists throughout.

Americana Railroad is the realized ambition of coproducers Saul Davis and musician Carla Olson, she a solo artist and frequent collaborator who started out in the dawn of the 1980s in the Textones. Their album offers three tracks by Olson, two of them in duo with Stephen McCarthy of The Long Ryders, “Here Comes That Train Again,” a McCarthy original, opening the record with a sturdy dose of rocking alt-country, and “I Remember the Railroad,” a tune by Byrds co-founder Gene Clark (from his 1973 album Roadmaster) serving as the set’s richly trad-C&W finale, complete with mandolin and fiddle.

Speaking of Clark, his song “Train Leaves Here This Mornin’,” a co-write with Bernie Leadon that debuted on The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark in 1968, is here in a solid version by his son Kai Clark. And Clark the father, who passed in 1991, has connections to Olson as they cut the duo album So Rebellious a Lover back in 1987. Deepening the ties to the Byrds, John York (who guests on Olson’s 2013 album Have Harmony, Will Travel) contributes a cover of John Stewart’s “Runaway Train” (a big hit for Rosanne Cash).

Olson’s third cut, which opens side four, is in duo with Brian Ray, who’s noted for extensive session credits, live work with Etta James and Paul McCartney, plus solo albums. They tackle “Whisky Train,” the opening cut from Procol Harum’s 1970 album Home, a hard rocker that stays true to the original while oozing contempo flair. Of Olson’s selections, it’s the one I dig the least, though it does underscore the range of material on Americana Railroad, and those who appreciate the original should be pleased with the duo’s treatment.

Of the handful of high-profile names heard across the set, none are bigger than John Fogerty, who teams up with harmonica ace Mickey Raphael to deliver a vibrant, bluesy reading of Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans.” In Americana Railroad’s favor, there’s no shortage of blues across the four sides, which includes Peter Case tackling the traditional “This Train” in Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s arrangement, plus two versions of Junior Parker’s enduring “Mystery Train,” one early in the sequence by Rocky Burnette (pretty good), and the other deep in the order by James Intveld (even better).

Gary Myrick’s brawny and raucous take of Tiny Bradshaw’s R&B chestnut “Train Kept A-Rollin’” gathers, uh, steam as it progresses, while AJ Haynes (of the Seratones) manages to both transform Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train” and retain a sense of the original’s prettiness. But the best of the bluesy numbers is also my pick of the record’s standout track, “Steel Pony Blues,” an original piece by Dom Flemons that hits like a busker dishing variations on Mississippi John Hurt in Greenwich Village circa 1963.

Case, formerly of The Nerves and The Plimsouls, and Olson represent the fertile California scene of the late ’70s-early ’80s, a thread on the album that’s strengthened by ex-Blaster Dave Alvin’s likeable original “Southwest Chief” and the contribution of Chip and Tony Kinman (of The Dils, Rank and File, and Blackbird) on Robert Rex Waller Jr’s version of “The Conductor Wore Black” (from Rank and File’s 1982 debut Sundown).

Waller Jr.’s other entry is “Midnight Rail,” written by the outlaw country cult figure Steve Young (from his 1993 album Switchblades of Love). It’s further evidence of Americana Railroad’s breadth exceeding expectations, as is a leftfield version of Graham Nash’s “Marrakesh Express” (featuring horns and subtle techno gloss) by another Cali outfit, Dustbowl Revival, and a vocally rich reading of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” by Deborah Poppink.

“500 Miles,” a well-loved song by Hedy West covered with aplomb by Alice Howe, adds a folkie singer-songwriter thread to the album’s weave, while “Waiting for a Train,” a Jimmie Rodgers tune given an exquisite reading by Paul Burch & Fats Kaplin, gets us in the proximity of the root stuff. It’s one of only a handful of top tier cuts on these four sides, but more important is sincerity that never falters into the overly reverent as it insures a baseline of quality. Americana Railroad his its highlights, but it stands up to repeated listens.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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