The music of the rails

Posted by Justin Franz
on Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Lost Angelos. Photo by Cameron Applegath.
Last weekend, I was at one of my favorite bars in town, the appropriately named Great Northern Bar & Grill in Whitefish, Montana, listening to one of my favorite cover bands, the Cold Hard Cash Show. Having a favorite cover band might sound like an oxymoron, but the Cold Hard Cash’s “tribute to the late, great Johnny Cash” really is a show worth the $5 cover. After all, how many cover bands can say they’ve played The Late Show?

During the show, I announced to no one in particular at my table that “Johnny Cash was a total railfan.” My fiancee laughed and rolled her eyes at about the same time the band started into the song Folsom Prison Blues, about an inmate listening to the lonesome whistle of a train going anywhere but there. Throughout the set, the band proved my point playing many a tune that mentioned the railroad, songs like the Orange Blossom Special and the Wabash Cannonball. My point was made.

For as long as there have been railroads, musicians have been writing songs about them. Bob Dylan had the Freight Train Blues, the Kingston Trio had Charlie on the MTA and Gordon Lightfoot had Canadian Railroad Trilogy. And that tradition is far from dead, as a band from Hamilton, Ontario is proving with their new EP Lately featuring a track inspired by a recently discontinued Algoma Central passenger train. Black Bear was written by Lost Angelos’ drummer and railroad enthusiast Ryan Gaynor and he explains its origins best.

“The song is based off my experience riding on one of the last trains between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst, Ontario, on the old Algoma Central,” Gaynor says. “The "Tour of The Line" train once operated over a 300-mile route, passing along hundreds of lakes, rocky canyons and some of the most spectacular scenery in Northern Ontario. Locals often referred to this scenic route as "The Tracks of The Black Bear". Sadly the train to Hearst hasn't turned a wheel since July 2015 when the lifeblood of the service, a $2 million subsidy, was cut. Black Bear tells the story of an often overlooked part of Canadian history and hopes to capture the spirit of riding on the train.”

The song, and the entire EP, is worth a listen. You can check out Black Bear on Band Camp, Apple Music or Spotify. Decades after Cash penned the lyrics to Folsom Prison Blues, it’s encouraging to know that the rhythm of the rails continues to inspire a new generation of musicians.

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