Old, weird America
Freight Train Riders of America go looking for a disappeared country
Stranger, there is a weird America out there, an America filled with staggering drunks, circling crows, lonesome trains and coal-black towns. The kind of America that’s a bit secret, a bit down and out, a bit slouch hat and greasy. And there’s a certain music in this weird America: the twang of the banjo, flat-picked guitar, a bow scraping catgut strings. It’s a party sound of sorts, but it’s the kind of party you won’t find in the citified suburbs on a Wednesday night.
But, stranger, if it’s the party of the old weird America that you seek, you might seek no further than the Freight Train Riders of America. Now, you might have heard tell of them in the paper, but this ain’t exactly the same thing. The old FTRA was a hobo collective of sorts. Stood for “Fuck the Reagan Administration” at first. Hobos riding the rails to work and live. Then the railroad bulls got nasty, dishing murder raps out right and left. Made the old FTRA sound like some kind of killing cult.
Now these young boys calling themselves the Freight Train Riders of America—this musical band—they don’t have any connection to the hobo FTRA. Not really. They just took the name on account of the early politics and to stir things up a bit.
Gwamba plays guitar. Big guy with too much hair. Played with them Okra Pickles for a spell. Clovis on the bass. He was a Pickle too, they say. Gene Smith from Kai Kln on guitar and mandolin. Damian from them Las Pesadillas on fiddle. Then there’s Ken Killian on guitar. No one knows where he came from. Maybe from the rails. Pretty much everyone sings.
Now this Gwamba, he seems real excited about this group. He’ll tell you, “We’re not trying to resurrect anything. We just love to play together. We’re best friends.” That might be so, but this music they’re playing has a sort of old-timey feel. The kind of music your granddaddy might have played out in the Carolina mountains, wooing your grandma with some fiddle scraping.
But don’t get me wrong. It’s real new music too. All original songs—except one—and good songs too. “A mixture of Irish pub, bluegrass, American string and rock ’n’ roll,” Gwamba calls it. “A cauldron of everything thrown in.” I think that boy’s right on the money there. A bit like bluegrass before it was bluegrass. No long showy solos here—just songs. Gwamba says, “We’re more into doing song, telling stories and music. We don’t care much about big bluegrass solos.”
Might not be many solos in the music, but those boys sure have made some bluegrass ears perk up. Been together only three months and all they got is a four-song CD demo—something they recorded at home and packaged themselves. Sent it out and let the calls come rolling in. Got them some shows set up too: the Bluegrass Festival in Telluride, Colo.; the Columbia Gorge Bluegrass Festival in Washington; the Tucson Bluegrass Festival in Arizona. Sounds like big time to me.
What seems real nice about it all is that the boys are bringing their families along with them to the festivals renting some RVs. Showing them the space. “I spent five years on the road, playing bars,” Gwamba says. “We wanted this to be different, and a big goal of it is to be very family oriented.” I think that means less whiskey bars and more theaters and festivals.
So, stranger, if it’s the party music of the old weird America that you seek, strap on your black bandanna and take a ride on the northern line. Listen close. Under the chug of the locomotive and the howling of dogs you might hear some nice harmonies, a dog barrel bass, a bit of catgut scrapin.’ Might just be the Freight Train Riders of America. If you can find ’em, you’re in for a damn good time.