Growing up in the Delwood area of Austin during the 1950s, Carla Olson lived about five blocks from the train tracks, walking home from Maplewood Elementary School every day with her friends. and test not to be killed
“The South Pacific has been through a lot. If a train came, we would all play chicken on the tracks. And there was a dog that was chasing us and trying to bite us. And we were wandering across the train trestle about 30 feet away. And you didn’t want to get caught in it when the train was coming! she says today.
“We broke a lot of pennies on those tracks. We don’t want to waste even a quarter! That was enough for 16 oz. RC Cola, even though I was an iced tea girl myself.”
She maintained that fascination with trains as she became an acclaimed roots music singer, songwriter and guitarist. But it is in her role as producer of the compilation. american rail (available on CD and digitally June 17 on Renew Records) that has been able to combine those interests.
The 19-track disc features every song about railroads and railroad life, from well-known ones (“Mystery Train”, “City of New Orleans”, “Marrakesh Express”, “500 Miles”, “Train Kept a-Rollin’ “, “People Get Ready”) to lesser-known tunes from writers and adapters like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Gene Clark, Jimmie Rodgers and Steve Young.
Artists include a lineup of roots music veterans including John Fogerty, Dave Alvin, Peter Case, Stephen McCarthy and Rocky Burnette. Olson herself sings on several tracks.
“The idea for this came up many years ago, but we needed to get the money to do it. Through the years, we gathered songs that we wanted to cut. Most of them are very old songs,” she says. “Rocky Burnette recorded ‘Mystery Train,’ which his dad did too! And that has such an authentic sound.”
And it’s not all about the joys and warm memories of riding rails. “Steel Pony Blues,” written and sung by Don Flemons, is about the true story of former slave and janitor Nat Love and his triumph over life’s incredible adversity.
“Whiskey Train” (by Olson with Brian Ray of Paul McCartney’s band) addresses the issue of alcoholism. There are also some originals, including Dave Alvin’s “Southwest Chief,” which he wrote just in time. “Dave wrote that song on the way to the studio. When he stopped, he had a single sheet of notebook paper with the lyrics on it! Olson laughs. He “stuck it on the microphone stand while he was recording it.”
While America’s history is deeply rooted in trains and railroads, that myth hasn’t been as prevalent in recent decades, at least in terms of travel.
Today, people tend to be more interested in getting to their destination as quickly as possible (see: airplanes) than in the experience of traveling and seeing miles of America pass through the window. It’s something Olson understands but doesn’t necessarily subscribe to.
“There is still a fascination with a train in the sense that it can take you far,” he offers. “They are much more [prevalent] in Europe. My sister and I used to travel there by train a lot when we were young. But it’s the idea of where a train can take you in your imagination, and then it comes true when you take one. Many children dream of leaving their hometown.”
american rail features two Gene Clark songs (“I Remember the Railroad”, “Train Leaves Here This Morning”). The latter was co-written with original Eagle Bernie Leadon and appeared on the band’s debut record.
Clark was a founding member of the 1960s group the Byrds, who, it is often mentioned in his biography, ironically left the group in part due to his fear of flying. He forged a solo career and played with others and is considered one of the earliest practitioners of what is now called Americana.
Olson had a close professional relationship with Clark, they performed together and recorded the influential 1987 record. So rebellious a lover. Olson’s husband, producer and manager Saul Davis, was also a friend. But neither of them could help Clark triumph over his alcoholism, and he died in 1991 at the age of 46 from complications due to the disease.
Olson prefers to remember the man he really knew instead of the Tragic Musical Hero. And he wonders (like so many others) why his music doesn’t get the attention that, say, gets into the tanks of his contemporary, the cult-favorite Gram Parsons who lives, dies fast, and dies young.
“He had a kind of muse in him that was channeled by I don’t know what. It took me a couple of years before I could read [John Einarson’s Clark bio] Mr. Tambourine. She was too close. And it was painful. I couldn’t listen to her music in the car for a few years either. Bob Dylan once said that if he could have written a song he didn’t write, it would be Gene Clark’s ‘For a Spanish Guitar,’” says Olson.
“He is portrayed as a miserable person who was constantly changing things and it wasn’t like that for me. He was a very kind and funny joker. He was always very professional, and there was not a single time that I was embarrassed to go on stage with Gene Clark. I knew there were days and times when he was reckless and loud, but he taught me a lot about singing softly and backing off the mic. He said: ‘Don’t miss the moment to do your best.’ That has always stayed with me.’”
Finally, Olson remembers many visits to Houston giving concerts. In the mid-’70s with an early band, then a few years later with the punk Violators, then with the rockers Textones (both with then-bandmate and future Go-Go Kathy Valentine). But she was in Bayou City even earlier for non-musical reasons.
“My best friend in high school had a boyfriend who went to Spring Branch High School,” she laughs. “So I spent a batch of time in Houston!”