It is near impossible to imagine American history without railroads, as brute fact and enduring romance. So too is it hard to imagine American popular music without trains. Whether as myth, image, symbol, metaphor, or as source for narrative, character, sound, and rhythm, trains have been central to jazz, blues, country, folk, gospel, or any of their various offspring, western swing, bluegrass, rhythm and blues, rock ‘n’ roll. “No one can document the number of people who have lain awake,” writes Bill Malone in Country Music USA, “listening to the lonesome wail of a distant freight train, or seen it belching smoke as it thundered,” and it seems as if there’s a train song for each of those numberless Americans.
Freight Train Blues, the fourth and latest volume in Rounder Record’s series Classic Railroad Songs, collects another 14 of those numberless railroad songs. Like the first two volumes the focus of Vol. 4 is songs from the country tradition (the third volume ws devoted to blues and R&B tunes). But unlike the earlier collections, which made a legitimate claim to the series title by includings cuts from the likes of Roy Acuff, Jimmie Rodgers, Muddy Waters, Louis Jordan, Snow, the Carters, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Flatt and Scruggs among more contemporary selections, you’d have to have a pretty elastic, expansive definition of “classic” for this collection to fit the bill.
Okay, I’ll give you Doc Watson’s “Freight Train Blues,” a fine song that’d fit most anybody’s definition of a classic (i.e. traditional, enduring, authoritative, of recognized value and a standard of excellence), and the Gene Autry/Red Foley-penned “Dixie Cannonball” as done by Red Knuckles & The Trailblazers (“hillbilly” alter ego of Hot Rize). But though Marty Stuart tears up Johnny Cash’s “Blue Train,” and bluegrassers Laurie Lewis and Kathy Kallick do the same to the Delmore Brothers’ “Don’t You See that Train,” these are hardly well-known examples of the art of these two admittedly classic sources.
More to the point, what on earth are NRBQ, or Asleep at the Wheel, or Pure Prairie League for god’s sake, doing here with cuts that aren’t even memorable, let alone enduring? And the Moog synthesizer on Joe Ely’s “Boxcars” is every bit the sorry imitation of a locomative whistle that it was in 1978, and just as irritating. What, he couldn’t find a fiddle player in Nashville?
Still, if Freight Train Blues leads a new listener or two to the work of Fred Eaglesmith after hearing here the funky clatter of “I Like Trains,” or the Lonesome River Band, one of the finest bluegrass outfits in the land, thanks to the inclusion of their driving “Hobo Blues,” or to Kate Campbell on the strength of her poignant ballad “Trains Don’t Run From Nashville,” it will have at least served some useful purpose.