It was the summer of 2018, and I was standing in Headwall Sports, a thrift store in Jackson, Wyoming, browsing some used shirts. Eventually, the store’s music came creeping into my conscious thought. It was a long song with a driving groove and haunting fiddle part. Definitely jam band material.
“Hey, what’s this music?” I asked the shopkeeper.
He looked at his iPad. “That’s Railroad Earth. The song is ‘Seven Story Mountain.’ “
When I got into my car, I pulled up Amazon Music and did a search. For the next 14 minutes, I listened to a live version of that song (listen here) which is a heart-cry of regret and longing to live fully and speak boldly. My guess is that it’s roughly based on the book, Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton.
Oh Lord, to see a light, but fail in strength to follow
Sometimes it’s hard to let it go
Oh Lord, to fail in heart, and each day grow more hollow
Sometimes I just don’t wanna know
But the road that led me here, it’s begun to disappear
Sometimes I wonder where I am
Oh Lord, to hear a voice, but let it fade and wallow
Sometimes it’s hard to let it to
Oh Lord, to find the words, but keep them in and swallow
One day the top is gonna blow
But the road that left me here, it’s begun to disappear
Sometimes I wonder who I am
Oh Lord, to stumble blind, for years without knowing
Sunrise has burned my eyes again
Oh Lord, to crumble quiet, watching from the silence
Sunrise has burned my eyes again
It’s a seven-story mountain. It’s a long, long life we live.
Got to find a light and fill my heart again.
It’s a seven-story mountain. It’s a long, long life ahead.
Got to find a voice and fill my throat again.
-Railroad Earth, lyrics by Todd Scheaffer (?)
I can now scarcely read these lines without an emotional reaction. So many times I find myself lamenting over missed opportunities and wasted moments. But then I’m reminded it’s a “long, long life ahead.” There’s still time to “find a voice and fill my throat again.”
Anyway, fast forward to January 2022, and Railroad Earth was coming to Asheville for a show at the Orange Peel. Now, I had only listened to other material by the band in small measure. Nevertheless, I thought it would be fun to hear them live despite only really knowing one of their songs. So I invited a friend and we gathered at the Peel.
What a show! Two long sets of Americana greatness. Think “Grateful Dead with bluegrass instruments.” Long extended jams. People bouncing, swaying, happy-dancing. But, no “Seven Story Mountain.” Still, a fun time.
I spent the next few weeks rectifying my Railroad Earth illiteracy, listening to and learning the songs I’d heard live and many others. Nugs released a recording of the very show I attended, so within a couple of days I was reliving my Orange Peel experience. I don’t think I really listened to much of anything else in those weeks.
A lively tune called “Elko” told the tale of travelers in the Nevada desert “shutting it down for the night” and “needing a winning hand.” It became my end-of-day work shutdown song. Songs had me “smilin’ like a Buddha” and “chasin’ a rainbow, no good reason why.” Sometimes I’d find myself falling into something, but, whadaya know, I “came up smilin’.” Other times I might feel like “just another bird in a house, trying to get out.” And in a cover of a George Harrison tune, RRE reminded me, “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”
So now it’s the middle of March, and I get an ad across my feed that Railroad Earth is closing their spring tour with two shows in Charlottesville, Virginia. “Hey, that’s only 5 hours away. Why not?”
I get there early on Friday night so I can stand up close. I meet some people for whom this is not their first or second rodeo; one fellow had taken the week off to follow the band and attend 5 straight shows. Others had been to dozens of RRE concerts. I come to find out that, much like devotees of the Grateful Dead were “Dead Heads,” these fans are “Hobos.” I guess I am too, even if on a lesser scale.
The lights dim. The band takes the stage. The drummer begins his cadence. Could it be? The fiddle comes in. Yes! It’s “Seven Story Mountain!” I wipe away tears of joy as I join the happy dancers. I punch my hands in the air and sing along, “one day the top is gonna blow!”
Later, “Elko” was launched and the guy next to me starts tossing playing cards. A young woman gives me a card because I had none. Puzzled, I look around, and hearts, spades, diamonds, and clubs are flying all around the venue. “I need a card, I need a card, hit me! Not too hard!” Todd sings, and cards go flying up to the stage. What fun!
And then I learned something about Railroad Earth shows. They’re interactive. The next night, when “Give that boy a hand” was sung, tiny rubber hands were flying around. I also learned that it’s most definitely worth it to go multiple times. The second night, the song set was completely different. No repeated songs. In fact, only 7 songs from the Asheville show two months earlier were performed in Virginia. The extended jams might be different from one time to the next. It’s as close as I’ve come to what I understand the Grateful Dead experience was like.
I ended that weekend feeling happy, refreshed, positive, and content. I met some new friends. Some fellow believers in Christ. Some fellow musicians who talked tech with me. I joined the Hobos Facebook group.
I’ve been to 3 Railroad Earth shows. I can sing along to more and more songs. I hung a concert poster in my office. I’m awaiting the next tour.
Does that make me a Hobo? I hope so!