Saturday, September 23, 2023

Train adventure fuels 12-song album by local musicians

The American Train Collective from Elizabeth Corey on Vimeo.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series.

Inside a packed New York City train station, a young, ragtag bunch of friendly musicians sported sandals on their feet with colorful bandannas festively wrapped in their hair. They hesitantly walked through the terminal carrying duffel bags full of clothes in one hand and hauling their instruments in the other.

They had come from as far as Tennessee, Wisconsin and New Jersey, while others started their journey in Virginia.

Four of the eight musicians knew each other from their days at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, but many were meeting for the very first time as it was pure wanderlust that brought them together for an epic, four-day, cross-country train adventure.

Left to right: Caroline Redick, Caroline Scruggs, Kelly Agnew, Samuel Corey, Jeanette Corey (kneeling), Alie Astete, Will Fruchterman and Lizzy Corey at the train station in New York City. (Photos courtesy Jeanette Corey)

Soaking up the great American landscape from the observation car on their Amtrak train was not the only plan on their agenda. Sure, it was going to be a big part of it.

But the main objective was to use the travel experience as fuel to write, perform and record an entire 12-song album together from scratch.  

“We basically banked on the inspiration that travel would bring,” said Jeanette Corey, 25, a Yorktown resident, who grew up in a military family that moved at least five times during her childhood, including stints in Norfolk and abroad.

“At that time, a lot of us were in some mental space that had kept us blocked in. All of our homes had become unproductive. So, the goal for us as a group was to isolate that common variable that had been holding us back and then eliminate it.”

Their ages, musical experience and instruments all varied, but when they stood together for the first time in that train station terminal, travel quickly became their common denominator as the project — dubbed the American Train Collective — just started to take shape.

It was a no-brainer

Months earlier, Corey conceded to a dry spell in her song writing before her subconscious motivated her to take a different path and spark some much-needed creativity.

“This whole idea came to me in a dream, so it was very personal,” said Corey, who was living in New Jersey at the time.

“In the dream, it was me and some friends and we were on a train, traveling across the country and we were writing songs together. It was very vivid, right down to the small details.”

It was not long before Corey made her dream a reality.

And it started by recruiting her close friend Caroline Scruggs, who was the first to commit to the project. Corey then took to social media to spread the word.

“I reached out to 47 people on a Facebook invite hoping that five or six would be crazy enough to do this,” she said. “Then I hounded people on the phone to come. We ended up with eight and I think it worked out perfectly.”

Caroline Scruggs, left, and Jeanette Corey documented the trip on the social media app Snapchat. (Photos courtesy Jeanette Corey)
Caroline Scruggs, left, and Jeanette Corey documented the trip on the social media app Snapchat. (Photos courtesy Jeanette Corey)

Along with the 25-year-old Scruggs, who was born in Williamsburg and now lives in Richmond, Corey was also able to rope in two of her musically-inclined siblings. There was her sister Lizzy, 21, who filmed the entire trip for an upcoming short film, and their little brother Samuel, 16, the youngest on the trip, who Corey affectionately described later as “the coolest teenager I know.” 

Corey and Scruggs both graduated from CNU as did their old college friends Will Fruchterman, 24, and Alie Astete, 24, who also joined the fun. They both live in Nashville, Tenn., and like Corey and Scruggs, are freelance musicians.

The rest of the cast included Caroline Redick, 25, a Milwaukee resident, who is pursuing her PhD in theological ethics at Marquette University; and Kelly Agnew, 25, a Newport News resident, who is a library assistant and children’s program coordinator.

“For me, it was a no-brainer,” said Scruggs, who sings and plays the banjolele for 504 Supreme, a New Orleans-influenced jazz band, based in Richmond.

“Jeanette started telling me about her idea and I already wanted to take a trip with her anyway. It was an amazing mix, the two things we love the most — traveling and making music. Right when she told me, I said, ‘OK, let’s pick dates’ and we sort of took it from there.”

No messing around

Originally inspired by the historic Southern Railway (formed in 1894) and Norfolk & Western Railway (1881), which today is owned by the Norfolk Southern Corporation, Corey planned out the entire cross-country itinerary for the group.

“Logistically, it could not have gone any smoother,” Corey said. “We had virtually zero problems. I’ve had more setbacks on a trip from Norfolk to Washington D.C. than we did on this trip across the country.”

Four days, 15 states and eight weary travelers. Lodging took place on the trains so there was little emphasis placed on general comfort or getting there in a timely fashion.

From New York, they rode the Lake Shore Limited line for 19 hours and got off in Chicago. After that, they boarded the California-Zephyr line and embarked on a 50-hour trip to Sacramento, CA. The final leg up the west coast to Portland, OR was on the Coast-Starlight line and took a mere 20 hours.

“I’m happy to report that the long train rides were super comfy,” said Corey, who compared the train amenities to that of business class on an airplane. She bought a two-week Amtrak rail pass that did not put a cap on distance or time spent traveling.

“We basically slept in coach. It wasn’t like you could make a bed for yourself but it was OK. We actually managed some sleep … while sitting up.”

Riding along the south shore of Lake Michigan, the Mohawk River, and the Erie Canal during the first leg provided plenty of scenery but this group did not waste too much time soaking up the sights.

Writing the songs was going to be the hardest part during the trip so they decided to take an aggressive approach. Each morning, they drew names randomly out of a hat and formed three sub groups regardless of their talent level or the instrument they played.

From there, each sub group had to finish writing at least one song that day. The next day, the process started all over.

“There was no messing around — this whole thing had to be done in four days,” Scruggs said.

“During the creative process, writers are supposed to write what they know. So we basically wrote a travel-themed album. Every song was about moving, transition, the journey, hellos, goodbyes. A few songs even mentioned the actual train.

“We worked with what we had right in front of us. It was beautiful.”

Editor’s note: CLICK HERE to read Part II of this story.

American Train Collective
Photos courtesy Jeanette Corey /
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