Dave Alvin in the studio recording "Southwest Chief" for the "Americana Railroad" compilation.Photo by Markus Cuff
Growing up in the Delwood area of Austin during the 1950s, Carla Olson lived about five blocks from the railroad tracks and would pass them walking home from Maplewood Elementary School every day with her friends. And try not to get killed.
“The Southern Pacific came through a lot. If there was a train coming, we’d all play chicken on the tracks. And there was a dog who used to chase us and try to bite us. And we’d wander around the train trestle bridge about 30 feet out. And you didn’t want to get caught on it when the train was coming!” she says today.
“We smashed a lot of pennies on those tracks. We wouldn’t want to waste a quarter! That was enough for a 16 oz. RC Cola, even though I was an iced tea girl myself.”
She kept that fascination with trains as she grew into an acclaimed roots music singer/songwriter/guitarist. But it’s in her role as producer for the compilation Americana Railroad (out on CD and digitally June 17 on Renew Records) that she’s been able to combine those interests.
The record’s 19 tracks feature all songs about railroads and railroad life, from ones that are familiar (“Mystery Train,” “City of New Orleans,” “Marrakesh Express,” “500 Miles,” “Train Kept a-Rollin’,” “People Get Ready”) to lesser-known tunes by writers and adapters including Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Gene Clark, Jimmie Rodgers and Steve Young.
Performers 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 of this came about so many years ago, but we needed to get the money to do it. Through the years, we just gathered songs we wanted to cut. Most of them are really old songs,” she says. “Rocky Burnette recorded ‘Mystery Train,’ which his dad also did! And that has such an authentic sound.”
Carla Olson and Stephen McCarthy have two songs on "Americana Railroad."
Photo by Markus Cuff
And they’re not all about the joys and warm memories of riding the rails. “Steel Pony Blues,” written and sung by Don Flemons, is about the true story of ex-slave and Pullman porter Nat Love and his triumph over incredible life adversity.
“Whiskey Train” (which Olson does with Brian Ray from Paul McCartney’s band) takes on alcoholism. There are also a few originals including Dave Alvin’s “Southwest Chief” which he wrote just in the nick of time. “Dave wrote that song on the way to the studio. As he pulled up, he had a single sheet of notebook paper with the lyrics!” Olson laughs. “He taped it up on the mike stand as he recorded it.”
While the history of America is steeped deep in trains and railroads, that mythos hasn’t been so prevalent in recent decades, at least in terms of travel.
Today, people tend to be more invested in getting to their destination the fastest way possible (see: airplanes) than the experience of the journey and seeing miles of America pass by through the window. It’s something that Olson understands but doesn’t necessarily subscribe to.
“There’s still a fascination with a train in that it could take you away,” she offers. “They’re a lot more [prevalent] in Europe. My sister and I did a lot of train travel there when we were young. But it’s the idea of where a train can take you in your imagination, and then it becomes true when you take one. A lot of kids dream of getting out of their hometown.”
Americana Railroad features two songs by Gene Clark (“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 ‘60s group the Byrds who—it’s often mentioned in his bios—ironically left the group partially because of his fear of flying. He forged a solo career and played with others and is considered an early practitioner of what is now called Americana music.
Olson had a close professional relationship with Clark, performing together and cutting the influential 1987 record So Rebellious a Lover. Olson’s husband, producer/manager Saul Davis, was also a friend. But neither could help Clark triumph over his alcoholism, and he passed in 1991 at the age of 46 from complications due to the disease.
Olson prefers to remember the man she really knew rather than the Tragic Musical Hero. And wonders (like many others) why his music doesn’t get the attention that, say, goes into the tanks of his contemporary, the cult fave live-fast-die-young Gram Parsons.
“He had some sort 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 Man. It was too close. And it was painful. I couldn’t listen to his music in the car for a few years either. Bob Dylan once said that if he could have written a song that he didn’t write, it would be ‘For a Spanish Guitar’ by Gene Clark,” Olson says.
“He’s portrayed as being a miserable person who was constantly changing things and that’s not how he was for me. He was a very gentle, funny prankster. He was always very professional, and there wasn’t a single time I was ashamed to walk onstage with Gene Clark. I knew there were day and times he was reckless and rowdy, but he taught me a lot about singing softly and backing off the mike. He said ‘Don’t waste the moment to be your best.’ That’s always stayed with me.’”
Finally, Olson does remember many visits to Houston playing gigs. In the mid’-70s with an early band, then a few years later with the punkish Violators, and then rockers the Textones (both with then-bandmate and future Go-Go Kathy Valentine). But she was in the Bayou City even earlier then that 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 lot of time in Houston!”
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.