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On the rails with Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock and Dave Alvin

The roots rockers head out of L.A.'s Union Station with about 70 fans in tow for a musical tour of the American Southwest.

September 29, 2009|Randy Lewis

ALBUQUERQUE — Texas singer-songwriter Joe Ely has been in love with trains his whole life. In 1977, he recorded one of the great train songs -- "Boxcars," which his longtime pal Butch Hancock wrote -- laying out exactly what had hooked him over the course of countless rides in open freight cars journeying to and from his hometown of Lubbock.

If you ever heard the whistle on a fast freight train

Beatin' out a beautiful tune

If you ever seen the cold blue railroad tracks

Shinin' by the light of the moon

If you ever felt a locomotive shake the ground

I know you don't have to be told

Why I'm going down to the railroad tracks

And watch them lonesome boxcars roll

"My grandfather worked the Rock Island line, and my father worked on the Santa Fe line," Ely, 62, said Sunday night following his performance at Burt's Tiki Lounge, about two blocks from the Albuquerque train station. Ely was accompanied by fellow singer-songwriters Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, his partners in the revered Texas trio the Flatlanders, on a bill they shared with California roots-rocker Dave Alvin.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, October 02, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 2 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
Moving Music Festival: An article in Tuesday's Calendar about a musical train tour of the Southwest, dubbed North America's Moving Music Festival, quoted Danish passenger Jens Koch as saying that such a trip would be more difficult in Europe because it "would require approval of several governments." It should have read that it "would require approval of several rail companies."

"I grew up with trains," Ely said. "I couldn't miss this."

Ely had joined up Sunday afternoon with Gilmore, Hancock and Alvin for an opening-night show that's part of a five-day train trek through the Southwestern U.S., part of what organizers like to call North America's Moving Music Festival.

It got rolling a day earlier, out of Los Angeles' Union Station, where about 70 roots-music enthusiasts had boarded four restored 50- and 60-year-old coaches on a train dubbed the Kachina Express, a landlubbers' alternative to the numerous music cruises that have proliferated in the last decade.

Ely, in fact, did miss the first leg of the trip from L.A. to Albuquerque on the old Santa Fe route that roughly parallels Route 66. He'd had a gig in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and couldn't make it to L.A. by departure time. So he caught up with the group in Albuquerque, much to the delight of the train travelers who took over Burt's Tiki Lounge for a private performance.

"Because these guys haven't been that commercially successful, it's hard to explain just how iconic they are," said Peter O'Brien, a retired physical education teacher who came from London to be on board.

Others drove or flew to L.A. from as far away as Vermont, Maryland, Florida, England, Ireland, Scotland and Finland, only too happy to endure last weekend's heat wave to travel with these champions of Americana music.

The excursion is the brainchild of Charlie Hunter and Sarah Ovenden, founders of the Bellows Falls, Vt.-based Flying Under Radar travel service, which since 2003 has put together more than a dozen music-based Roots on the Rail train trips.

For the passengers it's an irresistible combination of musical talent and mode of travel. "It's so civilized," said Atwater Village resident Claire Chandler, who like many on board has become an enthusiastic repeat customer of Roots on the Rails trips. She'd taken one that went from Texas to Mexico's Copper Canyon. Alvin and Hancock were also on that trip, along with Tom Russell, Terry Allen and others.

"To do it in Europe wouldn't be impossible, but because it would involve crossing through several countries and would require approval of several governments, it would be very difficult," Jens Koch, a former literature and English teacher from Denmark, said Sunday morning over breakfast in the 1949 dining car, watching the rust-colored hills and scrub brush blur by outside. "Anyway, you couldn't do a trip like this just in Denmark. It would be over in one day."

Besides, there's nothing in Denmark analogous to the red clay mesas that rise up above the countless dry creek beds that snake across the pale green floor of the New Mexico desert. Weather-beaten split-rail livestock pens and the occasional water trough stand next to deeply rutted dirt trails.

The Kachina Express trip, a new addition to the Roots on the Rail menu, continued Monday with a side trip by bus to the Painted Desert in Arizona, which was to be followed by a concert in Winslow. ("A corner in Winslow, Arizona," famously mentioned in the Eagles' hit "Take It Easy," was to be highlighted as a point of interest to this group.) It would move on to stops at the Grand Canyon and Flagstaff before its scheduled return to Union Station on Wednesday morning.

Others have explored the territory between Toronto and Vancouver, Canada, and Vancouver and Winnipeg, and, just before the Kachina Express trip, a "Cowboy Train" took participants through the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado and northwestern New Mexico. Another trip along the Santa Fe route with Stan Ridgway, Jill Sobule and the Handsome Family takes place Nov. 14-18.

But the combination of the Flatlanders and Alvin represented something special even to the connoisseurs of this strain of American music.

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