Thirteen Years Into Its Career, Railroad Earth Is At the Top of Its Game

Railroad Earth - Erin Mills
Erin Mills
Railroad Earth

Have you ever heard the Paul McCartney story of 'Yesterday,' where his original lyrics were 'Scrambled Eggs'?" asks Todd Sheaffer, having stumbled upon a better way to describe his songwriting process. "If you sing it, it makes sense."

He smiles. "It's kind of the same for me."

Sheaffer, the vocalist and lead guitarist for the band Railroad Earth, takes his time when speaking. He's deliberate with his words and somewhat meditative; it's to everyone's benefit that his mind has space to wander. The songs Railroad Earth crafts are collaborations between all six members of the band, but they're largely drawn out of Sheaffer's sketches, of moments passed and brief recordings captured on his cell phone.

"I sing something that shapes the mouth and flows in a lyrical kind of way," he says of his style. "You're writing lyrics and then discovering the ideas that are in the song as you go."

Railroad Earth's latest album, Last of the Outlaws, is the next phase of the group's particular brand of storytelling. It debuted strong, earning the band the Billboard moniker "heatseekers." After thirteen years, the band's seventh studio album is finally generating some heat. That's the natural result of a large and devout fan base, but it's also a testament to the album: Railroad managed to find the middle ground between what it's known for live and what it's capable of creating in a studio.

Railroad Earth has an archived network of its live shows that's only a few years away from being as comprehensive as, and it's got a fanbase that follows the group from coast to coast. Combine that with a penchant for improvisation and long, winding sets, and it makes sense that the group is often defined as a jam band, though it's more of a critical cliché to write that it defies any one genre altogether. When it came to Billboard, the album was classified as folk.

Sheaffer's style of songwriting, and the band's use of classical instrumentation to achieve a modern sound, makes folk the most inclusive descriptor. It captures the "bluegrass band with Celtic influences and improvisation by way of the Grateful Dead" sound just fine, but it also hints at the melodic nature of the music, as well as the down-and-out grit. Railroad Earth is foremost an American band, well-versed in blues and rock & roll, and with the addition of Andrew Altman on bass, can even offer a hint of the late-night womp that draws people to electronic music.

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