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Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff.

Joe Henry & Billy Bragg celebrate the musical heritage of train travel

By John McDonald on September 19, 2016

Joe Henry is looking forward to playing in Ottawa with Billy Bragg, his friend of thirty years.

The Bronson Centre is one of only two Canadian stops of their Shine A Light tour. For Joe, this will be his first time playing in our city.

“I’m definitely looking forward to it. I came of age in Detroit. The spectre of Canada stood right there, and for some of us, it was always considered our smarter, older brother. I appreciate greatly Canadian culture greatly. And, I have to tell you that my favourite living writer is Canadian. Alice Munro. She’s completely remarkable in every way.”

Earlier this year, Billy and Joe boarded a train at Chicago’s Union Station, arriving in LA four days later. Along the way, they recorded classic railroad-related songs in waiting rooms, and at trackside while the train paused to pick up passengers.

Photo by Ray Foley.

Photo by Ray Foley.

Joe Henry spoke to Apt613 by telephone from Los Angeles.

Shine A Light was quite a project. Four days, 2728 miles, on a train, hurried setting up of equipment when the train stopped, and the recording of maybe three songs before the train left. How did this project actually start?

It all began with a concept from Billy. I think it would have taken a foreigner to have an aerial view – to look on the American culture and its mythology and ask a pertinent and contemporary question about it. Billy has had a very unique overview of how song, in particular, has manifest in our narrative, a sense of who we are, and why we are who we are. He was able to conceptualize something that I never would have been able to. In pursuit of this understanding, we followed a very old and seminal rail route. The Texas Eagle originates in Chicago, travels south to San Antonio, where it joins The Sunset Limited out of New Orleans, and crawls west to Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean.

Did Billy have you in mind for this project from the outset?

No, he presented the concept to me as his friend, and as a producer. I had produced his Tooth & Nail album. He wanted my opinion. I was immediately intrigued in the process. The real time engagement. I don’t think that either of us would have been interested in just heading into a studio. We spoke about what was involved, tried to put pieces together. As soon as we started talking and kicking it around, it unfolded that he might need a partner to do it.

It is so obvious, from listening to the album, how well your voices work together.

Glad to hear that. We hoped that they would. We know we’re not the Louvin Brothers, and we weren’t trying to be. We were working from a place of shared interest, and deep and long friendship. We believed that if we were working on songs together that we both cared about, we’d find a way to make them work musically.

People will know these songs. They’ll be singing along with you. You had thousands of railroad-related songs to choose from. How did you arrive at these?

Of course, thousands. We spent a couple of months trading a lot of songs back and forth through email. We tried, instinctively, to just put songs out there without editorializing. There were good songs on the table until we met two days before the train journey. Then we took a look at what we had. We might find an open door. A song would invite our engagement. It would be accessible. There were also great songs that we weren’t sure we could hear ourselves in it right now. You instinctively know that a song is not right. Others immediately offered themselves for interpretation.

And you included Canadian content with the inclusion of “Early Morning Rain” by Gordon Lightfoot.

A song we both have loved since our teens. In fact, we recognized, in real time, that it was a perfect song for our purposes. It was the last thing we recorded. Five in the morning as we arrived at LA’s Union Station. Thematically it is a perfect closure for the album. The character is witnessing the fading of the railroad, and the prominence of modernity represented by air travel. He’s musing that he wished he could hop an airplane as he does a train. The train has faded in its authority while remaining ubiquitous in our culture.

Did you plan where you would record specific songs?

For the most part we did, because we needed to prepare ourselves. We basically had 22 minutes to record when the train arrived at the station. So we had to plan in advance. It was like firewood into the blaze when we got off the train. We’d brush up on a few songs before arriving in the station. Some of the songs had regional connections so we tried to record them at specific stations.

What was the reaction of your fellow travellers to what you were doing?

When we got out to record, I was amazed that no one seemed to notice our activities. There was interest in our recording engineer, but two fellows with guitars on a platform was not a shocking spectre. It’s almost expected. There’s always been some bloke with a guitar on the platform, so to go unacknowledged was quite inspiring in some ways.

You’ll be presenting Billy with the Spirit of America Free Speech Award. That’s an honour.

I’m incredibly honoured, first off all, just to asked to be on that particular stage. The Ryman Auditorium exists, in parallel only with the Village Vanguard, to be the standing church of American roots music. I certainly put the evolution of jazz in the context of American roots music. To be on that stage is no small thing for an American songwriter. And then to be asked to honour Billy. I’ve known him for 30 years. I admired him as an artist before I knew him. So to be asked to introduce him, and being asked to put some context to the award is a great honour.

What can we expect when you visit us in Ottawa?

The scheme right now, and of course it’s open to evolution, is to open and close the show together playing songs from the project. In the middle, I’ll do a block of my own songs, and Billy will do the same.

You’re very much a storyteller. When you write songs, do you have a specific person or event in mind and say “OK, that’s a song”? Take your recent song “Shook Up The World (For Ali)” about Muhammad Ali, as an example.

In very, very rare occasions in my writing life have I started something knowing what I wanted to write about. The Ali song, as a case in point. I did not sit down and decide I wanted to write a song for Muhammad Ali. I care about him, and I have a great love for him as an iconic, courageous, historic American figure. I set myself in motion, and recognized that he was who I was writing about. That’s how songwriting works for me.

Is there anything in particular that you wanted to mention about the Shine A Light project?

I hope we all understand that this is not a project of nostalgia. This is not about how much Billy and I love trains in antiquity. The point is to remind ourselves that the railroad remains an active, fluid part of our lives. These songs are shared vocabulary waiting for engagement. They are pertinent, and say something about who we are. Shakespeare’s plays are still be performed. The aren’t in museums. They are still relevant because they still speak.

The album title in many ways says everything. You can focus on the light, which is finite. Or you can consider what is being lit. We’re doing the latter.

Shine A Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad, the resulting album, will be released on 23 September. The pair play in Ottawa on October 5th, at the Bronson Centre theatre. Tickets are $35 and are available online.