Essential New Music: Billy Bragg And Joe Henry’s “Shine A Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad”

The railroad looms large in America’s history and mythology alike and makes a rich, fitting subject for these two veteran troubadours/amateur roots-ologists. Their latest project takes on the vast, varied repertoire of train songs; both traditionals and folk, pop and country staples that might as well be. This March, engaging in a bit of ballad-worthy myth-making of their own, the pair journeyed from Chicago to L.A. on the Texas Eagle, recording all the way—in sleeper cars, vast empty stations and, on briefer stops, sneaking in hasty track-side sessions before hurrying back aboard.

Everything about the resulting album—the singers’ obvious fond reverence for this material; the inherently unvarnished, off-the-cuff nature of the recordings; the layers of historical and emotional meaning conveyed in each song and amplified by their juxtaposition; even the odd, appealing mismatch of the duo’s inimitably textured voices (Billy Bragg’s gruff but surprisingly sonorous baritone setting off Joe Henry’s reedier, more soulful tenor in a loose, loving echo of Americana’s great brotherly harmonists)—elevates what could’ve been a gimmicky lark into something much grander and more idiosyncratically affecting. Shine A Light is a true folk document: an earnest contribution to the sadly fading culture and history it celebrates, which will be just as vitally relevant when we’re all hurtling along in Hyperloops.

—K. Ross Hoffman