The American Train Collective from Elizabeth Corey on Vimeo. Website for the American Train Collective.
Editor’s note: This is the final of a two-part series. Click here to read the first part.
Drawing names out of a hat at random was a good way to break down barriers that intrinsically exist when new people meet for the first time. Being stuck on a train also meant they had nowhere to hide.
“Well, there was a certain amount of awkwardness in the beginning because we were doing something creative with, in most cases, someone you barely knew,” Jeanette Corey said. “It was all about sharing thoughts and ideas and feelings with each other. Getting everyone in a place where we were all experiencing something new at the same exact time? That’s what turned out to be the great equalizer.”
“We really got to see everyone’s strengths come out during the creative process,” Caroline Scruggs said.
Hoping other fellow travelers would not mind when the group turned the common space areas on the train into a makeshift band practice was also an early concern.
But the musicians quickly learned that people who travel across the country on trains “are a different breed” and they were surprised by the welcome reception they usually received. Many fellow passengers would film the musicians during the creative process while some others joined in on the fun.
“When you’re on a train for such a long time, you kind of get to know the people around you,” Corey said. “Some people would sort of keep to themselves. Then after the slightest bit of conversation, all of the sudden, we’re all together singing and playing in the observation car. It was the music that brought us together. That just kept happening.”
One song Le Train from their upcoming album was based on a French-speaking 19-year-old from Montreal, who pulled out a ukulele to contribute a few lyrics and a few laughs during the trip.
Then there was another train passenger, an older man, who told the group he had written more than 400 songs in his career. He listened to the group, jotted down a few lines for them and is still in contact with Corey through email.
But the most memorable musical encounter with the other travelers took place during the second leg as the train meandered through the Rocky Mountains.
“It was in Utah when we had some amazing scenery through the window and at the same time, we had this impromptu sing-along for more than an hour with a large group of people. They were mostly the Amish travelers,” said Corey, who also used the occasion to break out her grandfather’s harmonica.
“It was pure Americana stuff — This Land Is Your Land, the national anthem — songs like that. We would look up the chords on our cell phones and it was like a group of 30 people singing together. It was incredible.”
The hard way
Overall, it was a clash of musical styles colliding on a train.
About half of the group had majored in music in college but it was in a classical style, Corey said. Most of the group had never written music before so that also served as a creative hurdle for the group.
“It wasn’t like we could haul a piano on to the train,” Corey said. “Before the trip, we weren’t sure about anything. I warned everyone that we may have to write these songs by humming.”
Instead, the group’s instrumental arsenal included an acoustic guitar, a ukulele, a banjolele and the harmonica from Corey’s grandfather. They relied on ‘hand percussion’ for rhythm and you can hear every member of the group sing on the album at one point or another.
After four days on trains, with “about 10 or 11” songs written — and limited time to practice them — they recorded their demo inside the basement of an Airbnb house they rented in Portland, Ore. It was a crude operation as they used a single-source microphone plugged into a MacBook laptop.
“Getting balance for the harmonica was tough,” Corey said. “We had to position ourselves away from the mic to blend it all together. There was no harmonica or percussion in the final product but everyone sang.”
With a little more time to perfect the lyrics and sync their instruments, the group plans to re-record a full 12-song album next month. The experience was such a success that Corey says the group plans to do a similar trip every two years as even more traveling musicians will be invited.
“The 2018 trip will go through New Orleans — we’ve already decided on that,” Corey said. “The thing that I would change next time is that we stop and get out for a little bit. Just to be able to root ourselves in the amazing cities we are passing through would be nice.
“But I guess that’s a common setback with trains and travel. We learned that the hard way.”
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