sat 09/12/2023

CD: Billy Bragg & Joe Henry - Shine a Light | reviews, news & interviews

CD: Billy Bragg & Joe Henry - Shine a Light

CD: Billy Bragg & Joe Henry - Shine a Light

Brit-American duo cross a continent digging into folk music's railroad mythology

A couple of hobos loitering with intent

In 1983, on the raucous punk-a-billy number “A13, Trunk Road to the Sea”, Billy Bragg affectionately sent up the parochial nature of Britain as compared to the USA (“If you ever have to go to Shoeburyness/Take the A-road, the okay road, that’s the best”). He’s always had a thing for the wide open spaces of America that inspired the blues, country and, eventually rock’n’roll.

Now, in an almost documentary fashion, his latest pays tribute to the way trains once brought a nation together, albeit very far from “Pitsea, Thundersley, Hadleigh, Leigh-on-Sea”.

Shine a Light, subtitled Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad, is, then, a project. Together with regular T Bone Burnett collaborator (and Madonna’s brother-in-law) Joe Henry, Bragg travelled from Chicago to LA by train, recording classic railroad songs along the way, in their sleeper, in waiting rooms and on stations. The songs are sometimes familiar – “Rock Island Line”, “John Henry”, “Gentle on My Mind” – indeed, it’s hard not to compare their trad and cuddly “In the Pines” with Kurt Cobain’s soul-decimating MTV Unplugged version. However, to do so would be irrelevant because Bragg and Henry aren’t barking up that particular tree. Instead, there’s a fascination with folk, with history, with stories, and a core interest in the way railways once united people and became part of American mythology.

The surprise is how much of the lead singing Joe Henry does, in his higher, faintly Elvis Costello-ish voice, while Bragg often stays in the background providing bass vocal support. He steps up front for some numbers, notably an affecting version of the Carter Family’s “Railroading on the Great Divide” and an enjoyably elegiac “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore”.

These aren’t the definitive versions of these songs, but anyone interested in this album likely knows that already. The best of it has an earthy charm that's touching, musically tight, with a rough’n’ready quality. The rich pleasure in its making is well conveyed. Shine a Light will likely not become a key album in either singer’s career but it’s a likeable exercise burnished with the dusty romance of American roots music.

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