Train music: The roots of rock ’n’ roll on the rails

Joe Ely, left, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock at Burt's Tiki Lounge in Albuquerque, N.M. (Los Angeles Times photo by Randy Lewis.)

Joe Ely, left, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock at Burt's Tiki Lounge in Albuquerque, N.M. (Los Angeles Times photo by Randy Lewis.)

Joe Ely, left, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock at Burt's Tiki Lounge in Albuquerque, N.M. (Los Angeles Times photo by Randy Lewis.)

Joe Ely, left, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock at Burt's Tiki Lounge in Albuquerque, N.M. (Los Angeles Times photo by Randy Lewis.)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Singer-songwriter Joe Ely has been in love with trains his whole life. In 1977, he recorded one of the great train songs — “Boxcars,” which his longtime pal Butch Hancock wrote — laying out exactly what had hooked him over the course of countless rides in open freight cars journeying to and from his hometown of Lubbock, Texas.

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If you ever heard the whistle on a fast freight train

Beatin’ out a beautiful tune

If you ever seen the cold blue railroad tracks

Shinin’ by the light of the moon

If you ever felt a locomotive shake the ground

I know you don’t have to be told

Why I’m going down to the railroad tracks

And watch them lonesome boxcars roll

“My grandfather worked the Rock Island line, and my father worked on the Santa Fe line,” Ely, 62, said Sunday night following his performance at Burt’s Tiki Lounge, about two blocks from the Albuquerque train station. Ely was accompanied by fellow singer-songwriters Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, his partners in the revered Texas trio the Flatlanders, on a bill they shared with California roots-rocker Dave Alvin.

“I grew up with trains,” Ely said. “I couldn’t miss this.”

Ely had joined up Sunday afternoon with Gilmore, Hancock and Alvin for an opening-night show that’s part of a five-day train trek through the Southwestern U.S., part of what organizers like to call North America’s Moving Music Festival.

It got rolling a day earlier, out of Los Angeles’ Union Station, where about 70 roots-music enthusiasts had boarded four restored 50- and 60-year-old coaches on a train called the Kachina Express, a landlubbers’ alternative to the numerous music cruises that have proliferated in the past decade.

Ely, in fact, did miss the first leg of the trip from Los Angeles to Albuquerque on the old Santa Fe route that roughly parallels Route 66. He’d had a gig in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and couldn’t make it to California by departure time. So he caught up with the group in Albuquerque, much to the delight of the train travelers who took over Burt’s Tiki Lounge for a private performance.

“Because these guys haven’t been that commercially successful, it’s hard to explain just how iconic they are,” said Peter O’Brien, a retired physical education teacher who came from London to be on board.

Others drove or flew to Los Angeles from as far away as Vermont, Maryland, Florida, England, Ireland, Scotland and Finland, only too happy to endure a Southern California heat wave to travel with these champions of Americana music.

The excursion is the brainchild of Charlie Hunter and Sarah Ovenden, founders of the Bellows Falls, Vt.-based Flying Under Radar travel service, which since 2003 has put together more than a dozen music-based Roots on the Rail train trips.

For the passengers it’s an irresistible combination of musical talent and mode of travel. “It’s so civilized,” said Los Angeles resident Claire Chandler, who like many on board has become an enthusiastic repeat customer of Roots on the Rails trips. She’d taken one that went from Texas to Mexico’s Copper Canyon. Alvin and Hancock were also on that trip, along with Tom Russell, Terry Allen and others.

“To do it in Europe wouldn’t be impossible, but because it would involve crossing through several countries and would require approval of several governments, it would be very difficult,” Jens Koch, a former literature and English teacher from Denmark, said Sunday morning over breakfast in the 1949 dining car, watching the rust-colored hills and scrub brush blur by outside. “Anyway, you couldn’t do a trip like this just in Denmark. It would be over in one day.”

Besides, there’s nothing in Denmark analogous to the red clay mesas that rise above the countless dry creek beds that snake across the pale green floor of the New Mexico desert. Weather-beaten split-rail livestock pens and the occasional water trough stand next to deeply rutted dirt trails.

The Kachina Express trip, a new addition to the Roots on the Rail menu, continued Monday with a side trip by bus to the Painted Desert in Arizona, which was to be followed by a concert in Winslow. ( “A corner in Winslow, Arizona,” famously mentioned in the Eagles’ hit “Take It Easy,” was to be highlighted as a point of interest to this group.) It would move on to stops at the Grand Canyon and Flagstaff before its scheduled return to Los Angeles on Wednesday morning.

Others have explored the Canadian territory, the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado and northwestern New Mexico. Another trip along the Santa Fe route with Stan Ridgway, Jill Sobule and the Handsome Family takes place Nov. 14 to 18.

But the combination of the Flatlanders and Alvin represented something special even to the connoisseurs of this strain of American music.

“I had been booked on another trip with them, but when I saw this lineup I told Charlie, ‘I have to switch my booking,’ ” said John Sweather, who works for one of Britain’s largest telecommunications and cable companies and was making his third such train trip.

Alvin, Ely, Gilmore and Hancock consistently have written songs deeply infused with a sense of place, rooted in the geography and mythology of the American Southwest.

The Flatlanders’ music frequently examines the freedom and solitude that come with life in West Texas.

“I see a lot of musicians come down from Michigan and Wisconsin, and they get to Texas and start writing songs about drinking beer and playing guitar,” Ely said. “But that’s not it. It’s something about all the openness, all the emptiness.”

The private concerts, late-night jam sessions and the chance to rub elbows with these musicians while on board made the price tag of a couple thousand dollars well worth it to several passengers interviewed.

On the first day out, Hancock worked his way through the dining car, chatting with passengers, welcoming first-timers and getting reacquainted with returnees. Alvin spoke quietly with a passenger about touring with his new band, the Guilty Women, and the joys and challenges of playing with other musicians compared with going solo, as he was on this outing.

The first jam session began modestly in the dining car around midnight on the first night out, somewhere past Laughlin, Nev. Dan Weber from Vancouver, Wash., Tommi Mattila from Helsinki and Domenic Cicala of Rockville, Md., cracked open guitar cases while on-board naturalist Elsabe Kloppers brought out her fiddle and rosined up the bow.

They took turns, “guitar pull” style. Mattila, who doesn’t write songs — “Not yet,” he said optimistically — offered such American country and western chestnuts as Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” and, fittingly, Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” He sang, “I hear that train a comin’, it’s rollin’ round the bend,” in his light Finnish accent.

Weber and Cicala spun out some original compositions while also gamely tackling a few John Prine and Kasey Chambers songs requested by Dublin tour guest Shonagh Hurley. Alvin leaned against the curved bar and looked on with a smile.

Tour logistics director Ovenden noted, “In this economy, people aren’t sure what’s going to happen to their money. What we’re hearing is that when they do spend money, they’re not interested in collecting more things; they’re interested in having unique experiences.”

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