Billy Bragg and Joe Henry, “Shine a Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad” (Cooking Vinyl)
It might seem paradoxical for a politically outspoken singer-songwriter like Billy Bragg to ride off during a divisive, restive time on both sides of the Atlantic.
But he wasn’t hiding out: The English musician with a roots-folk-punk persuasion literally hit the rails with American musical partner-in-crime, Joe Henry, and returned from a roughly 2,700-mile train journey from Chicago to Los Angeles with the album, “Shine a Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad.”
The musicians rode the Texas Eagle and the Sunset Limited and recorded on them, as well as in train stations and one hotel room along the way. They emerged with a baker’s dozen of rambling, raggedly exquisite rail-inspired songs.
Standouts include the up-tempo “Rock Island Line” and “John Henry,” and Bragg delivers the lead on a gem, “Waiting for a Train.” The song was adapted by Jimmie Rodgers, a country music forefather who lived in the same San Antonio hotel where Bragg and Henry recorded it. Rodgers adapted it from a British ballad called “Standing on a Platform.” That apparently suits Bragg, who sweetly sings — and even yodels — on what sounds like an authentic, early 20th century field recording.
The 21st century troubadours travel light here, with only guitars, a bit of harmonica and the ambient sounds of birds and trains. But the spare arrangements are enriched by their harmonizing, a fine blend they should bring to future projects.
Henry and Bragg — the latter worked with Wilco on writing music for a cache of Woody Guthrie lyrics — say in the liner notes that this was no nostalgia trip. They were plying musical ground in an effort to understand “just who we have become and why.”
This collection indeed shines a light and breathes new life into old songs that roll ever on — sometimes loosely but never off the rails.