In this current political climate where the news is filled with Brexit, the American Elections and the failing Health Service, to name but a few, you would assume that Billy Braggs latest offering on Cooking Vinyl would be his usual politically based muses, but not so.
Having once toured the UK by British Rail, Bragg developed a love of all things train. So thirty years later he has boarded the Texas Eagle with his friend, American singer Joe Henry and they have journeyed 2728 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles, singing and recording old folk railroad songs in the likes of station waiting rooms and platforms along the way.
What they have produced is an album of thirteen songs that not only deal with the journey itself, but how people’s lives have been affected by making their own train journeys. This has resulted in this album being a wonderfully authentic homage to the wanderings of songs of singers past.
With the spirit of the likes of Boxcar Willie, and Lead belly inhabiting these old tunes, there is the wonderful In The Pines and Where Did You Sleep Last Night? both covered by Nirvana. With Bragg and Henry alternating and sharing vocals on the songs, they bring these old songs to life. Rock Island Line, recorded by Lonnie Donegan in 1955 and which signalled the start of the UK skiffle craze, is included as is Johnny Cash’s bleak tale of economic hardship, The L & N Don’t Stop Here Any More.
There are also songs about African American folk hero, John Henry and nineteenth century outlaw, Railroad Bill. A stand out track is their tender treatment of John Hartford’s Gentle On My Mind (a 1967 hit for Glen Campbell) which is astonishingly good.
With its simple arrangements, guitar and vocals and the authentic rail announcements in the background, this album takes you on a gentle journey. Whilst Waiting For A Train features what must be the first known example of Bragg yodelling on record, that alone gives you cause to give this album a listen.