Train tours meld live music with sightseeing

06/14/2014 7:00 AM

06/11/2014 1:27 PM

Riding a train and playing or listening to music.

It conjures up romantic images of Woody Guthrie and his guitar crossing the country by boxcar during the Great Depression.

“Trains and music. They’re inexorably intertwined, as any right-thinking 2-year-old knows,” says Charlie Hunter, the supreme commander — really, that’s what they call him around the office — of Roots on the Rails, his Vermont-based company that since 2003 has run 35 music-themed train excursions. His attachment goes back to his childhood.

“As a 2-year-old, I loved trains,” he says, “and my older siblings sang me to sleep with horrible murder ballads like ‘Banks of the Ohio.’”

The music-train connection runs deep. Boxcar Willie made a career of hobo songs. Arlo Guthrie and Willie Nelson had hits with Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans.” In 1970, the Festival Express rolled across Canada with Janis Joplin, the Band, the Grateful Dead and others on board.

In 2001, Hunter, a music manager in the 1990s, put together a trans-Canadian train trip to a folk music conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. That led to the creation of Roots on the Rails (rootsontherails.com), with the first trip — Toronto to Vancouver — in 2003. Hunter now does four a year. The most recent, in April, was Los Angeles-Albuquerque (N.M.)-Chicago-Glacier Park (Mont.)-Portland (Ore.)-L.A.

The railroad fits most comfortably into the world of roots music. Folk, blues, western, jazz — American music — is the order of the day. And Roots on the Rails isn’t alone.

Premier Rail Collection (premierrailcollection.com), based in Chicago, has nine passenger rail lines under its umbrella, two of which are musically inclined. One of them, the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad in Colorado, transports music fans on day trips to its Mountain Rails Live concert series (coloradotrain.com) at Fir Station. This is the seventh season for the trips.

“It’s very successful,” says Sarah Munley, director of marketing for Premier Rail Collection, “because it’s limited engagement, intimate concerts with a maximum of 700, 800 people. We schedule lots of regional acts because they have big followings in the area.”

Premier also runs trains between Chicago and New Orleans twice a month with its Pullman Rail Journeys. The Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago (oldtownschool.org) provides musicians to entertain on the overnight journeys.

Munley says the trips generally draw an older crowd, baby boomers reliving the train travel days, but families come too.

Tickets for the Mountain Rails Live series start as low as $19 per adult and $9 per child. The Americana Music Festival, a special event that’s also part of the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad’s summer concert series, is $39 per adult, $19 per child, for a one-day pass; and $49 per adult, $29 per child, for a multiday event pass. The Pullman trips range from a $360 single to $1,140 double occupancy.

Roots on the Rails’ trips are more involved and costlier. They can include concerts before, after or along the route, busking in a train station, open mic shows featuring the musicians and passengers, and sightseeing. Trips can be five, six or even seven days, and prices can run from around $2,000 for a basic single to just over $7,000 for deluxe accommodations for two. There is room for 24 to about 50 travelers, depending on the trip. (The next one, in July, is a five-day Chicago-to-New Orleans round trip.)

Hunter strives for the right mix of music and people.

“You can’t take the flavor of the month and put them on a train,” he explains. “People who follow the flavor of the month are young and can’t afford these trips.”

So, like Premier, empty nesters make up the majority of his audience. Hunter is also meticulous about whom he chooses as a lead musician, “someone who is reasonably social, someone who is loved by a core group of fans. I don’t want to work with really famous people. They want a whole lot of money, then the trip costs $8,000, and the only people who can afford to go are people I don’t want to be associated with.”

Dave Alvin is a good fit for Hunter. With more than 30 years as a touring musician to his credit, Alvin knows his craft, charms a crowd and has a solid fan base. Alvin has done six Roots trips and is especially fond of a Los Angeles-to-Albuquerque journey.

“These are places a train can go that you can’t get to,” Alvin says. “It’s private property or military land. So that’s a thrill to see where the mountains meet the sea. It’s a very romantic trip. Not in the ‘I love you, darling’ sense but in the poetic sense.”

“The first time I did the West Coast in California, Charlie had scheduled me to be playing while we went through all these areas. So I just stopped playing and starting talking, like a tour guide. ‘That’s Point Conception, that’s Vandenberg Air Force Base. …’ Now they don’t have me play at that point of the trip.”

Alvin recently completed an 11-day trek from LA to Chicago and back. The trip included fellow musicians Phil Alvin (Dave’s brother), Jon Langford, Rick Shea, John Doe and Christy McWilson. He notes the inherent challenges of such a gig.

“Comfort … depends on how (well-maintained) the track is. In Mexico it’s loose, so you’re in a boxing match with the microphone. In the U.S. it’s pretty compacted, so you don’t have that problem.

“But two things I’ve learned: Always play sitting down, and always keep your left foot on the mic stand. They ought to have a dentist on these trains.”

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