With a few days left before the end of 2022, Railroad Earth’s veteran violinist/guitarist/singer Tim Carbone is at home, relaxing and enjoying the holidays before the Americana roots ensemble descends on Chicago for a two-night stand—December 30 & 31—at the historic Vic Theatre. The pair of festive appearances will feature Bluegrass Hall-of-Fame inductee, guitarist, and singer-songwriter Peter Rowan—guesting for a full performance of the album, Old and In The Way, on the 30th and supporting on the 31st. They will also mark a year that saw the band issue its 10th record, All For The Song, as well as shift its personnel. The Windy City shows continue the initiation of the New Jersey quintet’s new bassist, Dave Speranza, who debuted with the group earlier in the month at the Strings & Sol festival. Both evenings, as well, will include full sets of Railroad Earth and, according to Carbone, at least one ‘shebang.’
You’re playing two nights with Peter Rowan at the Vic in Chicago to close out this year. When you have two consecutive nights in one place like this, do you think about making each a stand-alone special show?
These two shows obviously are going to be very different from each other. Half of the first one will be dedicated to doing Old and In The Way. And any time we do this with Peter it’s a whole different animal. This is like the sixth or seventh time we’ve done this with him. He likes playing with us. We like playing with him.
For Old and In The Way, are you looking to bring a fresh approach or is it paying reverence to what’s on the album?
I’m definitely paying reverence to it. That’s Vassar (Clements). People have said to me that I have a lot of Vassar in my playing. And I do. I knew him. I was friends with Vassar. It totally makes sense for me to try and channel his spirit. Everybody in the band has a reverence for that record. It was one of the gateway drugs to bluegrass.
Do you like curveballs in a show?
One-hundred percent. New Year’s Eve generally has something like that. We have a great crew. Our lighting designer is very creative. For New Year’s Eve he always puts together something he calls the ‘shebang.’ So there’s going to be a shebang. I don’t know what it will be but there will be one.
So that’s still a surprise to you?
My role in this band as a soloist is to get up there and shred; to get the setlist and play my heart out; to engage the audience in what I do. And I’m ready to do whatever.
Dave Speranza recently arriving as your new bassist. Can you talk about his approach to the music?
He’s a fabulous player. I can tell you that. He’s a very different player than Andrew (Altman). Andrew was a lot flashier. I know Dave can flash with the best of them, but Dave’s way of playing is to lay it down; be a real solid part of the rhythm section. Andrew was more fluid—like a Phil Lesh type—not necessarily playing a song the same way every time. Dave is a big fan of James Jamerson and Paul McCartney, and those are two of my favorite bass players in the world. Dave and (drummer) Carey (Harmon) will lay out a beautiful black velvet foundation. And if you look at solos as jewels—when you put those jewels on a black velvet background everyone sees the jewels better than if you put them on a background that already has jewels on it.
Does that inspire you to approach the songs differently?
We went back, on a couple of songs, because Dave was using the records, as opposed to live recordings, to learn the songs. He’s showing us on a handful of songs what the original bass part sounded like. And we were like, oh, that’s pretty cool. He’s only done two sets with us—at Strings & Sol—and already our fans were chanting his name. I was blown away. That’s so awesome. He’s really good. I know he’ll put his spin on all of it.
Railroad Earth has been a working band for over two decades and now is attracting its second generation of fans. What have you noticed at this stage in the band’s career?
We’ve had a number of guys propose to their prospective wives onstage or in the audience. They go on to have kids and those kids are now coming to see the shows. That’s not necessarily a rare occurrence. I see dozens of people who came to see the show as kids with their parents and now they’re in college.
When you see your effect on multiple generations, what does that mean to you emotionally?
This is kind of a joke, but it sort of isn’t: I’ve been saying that I’m either too stupid or too stubborn to do anything else. The reality is that we have had ups and downs as a band, but for the most part the momentum has been forward. Playing music is a pretty damn good way to make a living if you can make a living at it. We have a great fanbase. I can’t imagine having a better fanbase. So what’s not to like?
At the end of a year do you reflect on where you’re at as a musician or as a band? Do you set goals? Or do you just keep rolling?
For me, I just keep on rolling. I’m 66 years-old. I’ve been at this a bunch of years. If you’re playing music, having a good time, making a living, then every year is your year. What do you want? Is your goal to be rich and famous? Well, not really. I just want to continue to do what I do and enjoy doing it. And have other people enjoy it.
Does it get easier? Harder?
I wouldn’t say it gets easier. I wouldn’t say it gets harder. We went through a horrendous time with the pandemic. And the question of what’s next is still unanswered. How is this all going to turn out? We may be over the pandemic, but it’s not necessarily done with us. So what happens when someone gets sick on the road, on the bus? How do venues survive 20-30% less people showing up for shows? These things are in the back of my mind. But, as an older player still doing this? Yes, this is great! I just want to keep going as long as I can.
It seems like there has been a newfound interest in the Americana/bluegreass/jam scene, with the infusion of artists such as Billy Strings helping to create a high tide that raises all boats. Have you noticed that?
It may be too soon to tell. There’s reason to believe that a lot of our fans were introduced to Billy Strings when he opened for us on tour. He’s a great player. I like his songs and his band’s really good.
Here’s what I would like to have happen for Railroad Earth: We would be well-served to open new markets if we could. One market I always wanted to be part of is the European market. Billy’s been over there doing shows. Maybe he’s the guy to crack that nut. If that’s the boat that rises with the high tide, then put me in that boat.
Pre-pandemic, I think music was trending more and more towards being devalued; as mostly free, consumable, disposable files. And artists as increasingly faceless creators of sound you get from a button-click on a phone. A silver lining may be that the pandemic actually reminded everyone that artists are people, and this can go away.
That’s actually a really good point. I’m seeing that. We’ve had fans take it upon themselves, got together, took up a collection, and gifted everyone in the band a thousand dollars to get by. That’s like, Jesus! That’s pretty crazy. The internet giveth. The internet taketh away. The internet giveth again. It does seem like people became aware. Like, holy shit, maybe these guys are going to go away and I need to do something to prevent that.
Do you have final thoughts, heading into this year-end run?
It’s going to be great. I’ve always loved playing the Vic. It’s got a lot of history. The crew there is outstanding. We had a couple of options and I’m glad we chose Chicago. I’m totally stoked. And I know a little cold weather is not going to stop anybody.