Hailing from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, The Railsplitters are a five piece modern bluegrass band with a classic line-up of banjo, fiddle, mandolin, guitar and double bass. Featuring top notch instrumental playing, strong lead and harmony singing and high quality original songs, they embark on an extensive UK tour in April, including a gig for True North Music at Marsden Mechanics on Friday 8th April. Back in December, banjo player and principal songwriter, the gloriously named Dusty Rider, took time out from the band’s tour of Germany to chat with me.
Tell me a bit about your personal musical history – how did you come to play the 5-string banjo?
It started with an American TV show The Andy Griffith Show. I saw this band The Dillards on there and I remember this song There Is a Time with Charlene Darling [The Darlings were a fictional string band played on the show by The Dillards plus a couple of actors]. The banjo stuck out as the instrument that sounded the best to me and seemed the most interesting. BUT the only reason I’m playing it is because the guitar was too hard! I tried playing my dad’s guitar and I couldn’t do it. My grandma had a banjo in her closet and I found it and proceeded to teach myself. I was a freshman in high school; I think I was 14 years old at the time.
You certainly seem to have an interesting CV– is it true you’ve been both a brakeman on the railroad and an air traffic controller?! Is music your full time occupation now?
Yeah, that’s right! The downside of working in transportation is that it tends to be a 24 hour a day, 7-days a week gig. Basically the schedules didn’t work well with being a musician. So now I’m a full time touring musician, teaching now and then. At the moment I don’t have many students because I’ve been away from home for practically the entire year. But actually we were in Dresden a couple of nights ago – somebody emailed me before the tour and asked if he could come for a lesson. In between sound check and dinner we got together for 45 minutes and I taught him everything I know!
I see that like many folks on the bluegrass scene, you turn up in various ensembles. I think you’ve played recently with two of my favourite musicians – Cahalen Morrison & Eli West?
It’s an occasional thing for me, I’ve done a couple of tours with Cahalen & his other band Country Hammer [now renamed Western Centuries] and I got to play pedal steel, which I don’t really do any more. 140 pounds of instrument is not that easy to tour with. It was fun to play with those guys though; I hope I can keep doing that every now and then!
I believe that there’s a good bluegrass scene in Colorado round the Boulder and Lyons area? Plus the Rockygrass festival of course – is that your home festival?
We’re based primarily out of Boulder nowadays. Christine (fiddle) moved down to Denver and Lauren (guitar/vocals) & I are at opposite ends of Boulder, but we refer to the whole region as the Front Range. Fortunately we’re still all close enough together to make it fairly practical. Planet Bluegrass will be announcing on Friday that we’re going to be playing Rockygrass in 2016. That will be a big step for us, because the first time we played it we were doing the band contest, and the next time we played because we’d won that. But this is the first year that they invited us to play the festival.
You get a lot of praise for your original songwriting. Did The Railsplitters start out as more of a traditional bluegrass band or was it always a vehicle for original songs?
We started out mostly traditional – like the track Where You Are on the first record, plus Jackson Town, which was in a traditional style although it was written by Lauren, and Lonesome Feeling and a couple of others. That was what we did, because we mostly met at bluegrass jams and so you play stuff that everybody else knows, or that’s easy enough to teach. None of us ever set out initially to carve our own path into the songwriting world. I certainly didn’t think of myself as a songwriter, until one time we were driving down the road and I asked the other band members “I’ve got this melody in my head and it goes like this – do you think we could make something of it?” They were like, “sure, let’s try it out” and that’s what turned into the song My World. I had the chords and the chorus. Pete (mandolin) was the one who came up with the words. It’s been fun, and I’ve been trying to be less directive in how I write. I’ve always enjoyed writing for an ensemble, but I’ve been finding to find a way to let the band bring more to the process, because they’re great at it!
Getting back to bluegrass picking and banjo playing in particular – what were your main influences?
Once you get past Earl Scruggs, who was obviously a huge influence, for me Bobby Thompson was really important. I credit Pete Wernick with teaching me, even though he didn’t teach me directly. But I used his Bluegrass Banjo book and I still regard it as one of the most well put together books I’ve encountered for learning an instrument. He talks about Scruggs style, about melodic style, Tony Trischka, he talks about single string and Don Reno style. I should also add Bela Fleck and Noam Pikelny as well as Bill Keith – they were all important influences. I love pretty much any melodic player.
I also understand you did a stint with the Byron Berline Band?
Uh-huh! That was pure chance. I was training to be an air traffic controller (ATC) and every ATC has to go down to Oklahoma City to do their basic training. I had to be there for four months and while I was there, I went to Guthrie where Byron Berline has his shop [The Double Stop Fiddle Shop & Music Hall]. I had no idea until then just how much of an impact he had on the music industry. I went up there kinda hoping I could play banjo and figure out how to jam with him. He let me play some of the banjos from the shop and as I was putting one of the banjos back on the wall, he came back with his fiddle and said “no, take that down, let’s play a tune!”. He told me he had a jam that night and a concert that he hosts above his music shop every other week. He told me to come on by and so I did. I played in the jam and then at the show, he had me come up toward the end of the night and sit in on a couple of tunes. I ended up playing with the band for the duration of my time there, because [regular banjo player] John Hickman ended up having to go to the hospital twice for different conditions, and Byron asked me if I could fill in for him.
The Railsplitters toured the UK in June 2015 – was that your first time here?
Last June was the first time that any of us had been to the UK, if I’m not mistaken. Leslie (bass) and I had been to Germany separately before, but this was the first year that we’d visited Europe as a band and it’s been kind of life changing, to be honest. It’s fascinating to get out of America, where our style of music is kind of dismissed by most of the audiences that we play for, and come to Europe. That was the most striking thing in the UK, that everyone listens to an almost abnormally high degree of concentration and focus. Initially it was kind of hard to play, because we weren’t sure how people were reacting, but then at the end of the night everybody would come up to us and tell us how much they loved the show. Once you get past that initial culture shock then everything gets easier. They really treat us so well over in Europe.
We look forward to seeing The Railplitters in Yorkshire in April. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us!
Sounds great, we’ll see you then. Thank you for making this interview happen!
Tickets for the Marsden concert can be booked here