Carla Olson photo by Marcus Cuff
Carla Olson On “Whiskey Train” from Americana Railroad
Carla Olson is a singer, guitarist, songwriter, producer and more, and she and her husband, producer Saul Davis, have been talking about putting together a collection of newly recorded classic songs dealing with railroad themes for decades. Their hard work, and that of many contributing artists, has finally paid off with Americana Railroad, due out June 17th from BMG. If you’re an eagle-eyed vinyl collector, you might have spotted a double vinyl exclusive version of the 19-song collection that managed to sneak into release in 2021 ahead of the CD, but this is the first time it’ll appear both digitally and on CD for fans.
The sounds and the ideas on the collection are as wide-ranging as the contributors you’ll find on the tracks, including John Fogerty, Dave Alvin, Rocky Burnette, Dom Flemons, Stephen McCarthy, and Carla Olson herself. You’ll find spare, haunting takes on the role of trains in our national consciousness going back generations, and rocking, high-energy tracks that channel some of the ideas socially aware artists were building into their songs. I spoke with Carla Olson about the song “Whiskey Train,” originally written by Keith Reid and Robin Trower, and released by Procol Harum, which Carla Olson and Brian Ray built out into a more multi-layered sound for Americana Railroad. Olson also shared stories from working on this collection and from the youthful memories that inspired it.
Americana Highways: To what extent have you been able to make music between 2020 and now?
Carla Olson: I’ve been in the studio since 2020 anyway, off and on when I could. When it was totally closed down, I was doing stuff myself, between my cellphone and laptop, recording stuff, sending it to people, and hoping for the best. But it turned out that I’ve been prolific, as crazy as it sounds, possibly more prolific than I have been my entire adult life, because of the need to create and do something that someone responds to. I read a stack of books for the first three months, then I cleaned, and then it was like, “Okay, now, what can I do?”
AH: Was some of that Have Harmony, Will Travel Part 2 or was that already done?
CO: Part 2 was done. I’m already onto Part 3 and am about half done with that. Tracks have been done, though not finished yet. One of the tracks, thankfully, was done with B.J. Thomas before he passed away. I just did a single for The Who’s Teen Cancer America charity. I did “I Can See For Miles,” which was a single that I loved when I was a kid. It was always my favorite Who song.
AH: I understand that Americana Railroad has a little bit of prehistory, because it originally appeared as an exclusive vinyl for Record Store Day, but now will get a wide CD release from BMG.
CO: We were actually done with it by June of 2020, but it couldn’t be released on CD yet because BMG is located in Germany, and Germany was floored with Covid at the time. Everything was closed. So what we did was sit on it even though it was all set to go. But the double vinyl release opportunity came up for Record Store Day and BMG suggested we do that, though even Record Store Day got pushed back.
Some of this stuff has actually been around a while, in some cases, decades, but the idea of the album was that my husband and I had always said, “We’ve got to do a train album. We’ve got all these great train songs.” I have an association with Gene Clark because in the 80s, he recorded on a Textones album. Three of these songs were intended for a railroad album even back then! We just never got around to it.
AH: It doesn’t seem that wild to me to have this idea, because I have a compilation vinyl record of Johnny Cash’s railroad songs.
CO: There was a Johnny Cash documentary about railroad songs. It’s very cool. Johnny Cash is the coolest. My mother loved Johnny Cash! She was a rancher and she thought he was so handsome in black with that bolo tie.
AH: I notice that you’re undaunted by the idea of projects that have a lot of people and a lot of moving parts involved, like this one, and like the Have Harmony, Will Travel series. Do you think that’s something you’ve gotten used to over time?
CO: As a producer, yes, I’ve done quite a few projects with multiple artists on hand. For myself, I’ve done duets albums that involved many people. For me, the best part about it is that my husband does the planning of a project I’m involved in, and I do the work with the musicians, the music, the songs, the keys, the instruments. He does the logistics, finding the people that we both want to have involved. It’s a good team and we’ve been together 41 years. We’re used to working together. He managed my band The Textones. I’ve always been a band member and a band leader. Somebody’s got to do it, and it may as well be me! [Laughs]
AH: It sounds like that has translated to the virtual sphere and to the phone as well as working in person for Americana Railroad, but probably also for other projects.
CO: What you do is start with one or two cornerstones, artists that you know that you can count on. When I did the first duets album, Have Harmony, in 2012, it started with me talking to Peter Case and asking if he’d do a duet with me. He said he’d love to. Then I asked Scott Kempner of The Del-Lords, and he said, “Count me in!” That’s how it starts.
AH: I want to ask you about “Whiskey Train,” which we’re debuting with this interview. When I saw that this was a Procol Harum song, I wondered if Gary Brooker was still with us when you recorded the song.
CO: He was. As a matter of fact, my husband is friends with Keith Reid, who wrote the song with Robin Trower. The song actually came about because when we started working on this project, Brian Ray is a local guy, a powerhouse guitar player and writer, and we were talking about doing a song together. I told him to pick a song, and I thought he was going to sing it.
Then we got down to the studio, and we both had lyric sheets, and I asked, “Which parts do you want me to sing?” And he said, “Oh no, you’re going to sing the whole thing.” I said, “What??” I’d never sung it before! I knew the song since I’m a big Procol Harum song, and had listened to it several times to do the arrangement, but I’d never sung it. I got in there, and all the mics were at my height! Brian said he’d coach me.
AH: I think you did a lovely job on the vocals, though I’m sure that was pretty alarming.
CO: The video for the song is a scream. It was done on green screen and there are all these trains going backwards and forwards around us. We have guitars in hand and I’m screaming ad-libs. It cracks me up and was a lot of fun to do. Brian is getting ready to go back on tour with Paul McCartney.
AH: Did Brian pick “Whiskey Train,” then?
CO: Brian picked three or four, and I thought, “Whiskey Train would be really good.” It’s a metaphor for alcoholism and whatever else you want to think about it. It’s also such a cool riff, especially if you like the British Invasion bands.
AH: It’s a very rocking, intense song, too!
CO: There are some very rocking songs on here. The second song, “The Conductor Wore Black,” was a song that the band Rank and File did, with Tony and Chip Kinman. Chip played guitar for us, but Tony has passed away, so Robert Rex Waller Jr. sings it with me. Then Rocky Burnette does “Mystery Train,” and that’s really rocking.
AH: This album also has a really broad sweep of sound traditions to it, too, doesn’t it?
CO: Yes, I wanted to appeal to a lot of ears on this. Some of these songs were chosen by BMG who chose some of their favorite railroad songs, and some are just Peter Case with a harmonica and guitar, like he does when he goes and plays live as a one-man band. John Fogerty and his kids and family sang and played “City of New Orleans.” They brought that track to me and I said I’d love to put it on the railroad album, but asked, “Could we put a harmonica on that?” Mickey Raphael was on lockdown and wasn’t touring, and he’s one of the best harmonica players in the world, so he played harmonica and I mixed it. Gary Myrick also does the rockingest version of “Train Kept A-Rollin.” A lot of people know The Yardbirds’ version of it, or Aerosmith’s version, but Gary’s version is pretty pure central-Texan.
AH: Just talking about this album is really bringing out the wealth of talent here and the really special people who you managed to involve in some way. There’s also the homage this does to the original people who wrote these songs or worked on the original versions.
CO: Don’t we owe it all to them? Look at Elvis, Johnny Cash, and certainly The Byrds. John York was in the Byrds for Ballad of Easy Rider. He does the John Stewart song on here, “Runaway Train,” which was a hit for Roseanne Cash. That song is about nuclear holocaust.
AH: I know that some of these choices highlight things that are important for us to think about and keep in mind, and maybe even when they were originally released, the artists intended that. “Whiskey Train,” obviously, is as relevant as ever, since it’s about trying to make good choices.
CO: Yes, sure. Also, you have a couple people here whose works I didn’t know of, like Alice Howe, doing classic songs like “500 Miles.” The first time I heard that song, it was Joan Baez and Peter, Paul, and Mary, and those were my heroes when I first started playing guitar. “Freight Train” was a big standard in the 60s if you were a Folkie.
AH: You had a tough choice here, because even at 19 tracks, I think you could have added more.
CO: We could have added more! If not for Covid, we probably would have had more. I keep thinking of them. Hopefully there will be room to do another volume of this if people are up for it.
AH: How do you think this idea resonates now? Obviously, there’s plenty of nostalgia for trains, but one of the big American themes in storytelling is the roadtrip. Maybe train songs are an early foundation for that.
CO: When we were kids growing up, some of the things that you did on the way home from school kind of colored your existence. We used to walk home in a group and have to cross railroad tracks for freight trains. We didn’t get passenger trains in Austin, Texas until later than that, and they only came through a couple of times of week. So you’d go put your ear down to the rail and listen to see if a train was coming. If one was coming, you’d wait for it and wave to the conductor. Or you’d put a penny on the track and get it smashed.
Austin wasn’t a small town when I was growing up, but it also wasn’t a big town. It was maybe a couple hundred thousand people at best when I was in high school. It’s a couple million now, but back then, the thought of getting out of Austin crossed your mind as you were getting older. You thought, “What am I going to do?” I used to think, “It would be really cool if I could get on a train and go somewhere, anywhere.”
I went to Europe when I was 17 and spent a lot of time on European trains because it was the way to get around. My sister and I got rail passes and visited our brother in Rome, who was there studying acting. The idea of getting away on a train was there, whether it was to get out of a bad situation, or whether it was just to look at the horizon and say, “Wow, I wonder what’s out there?” Growing up, some people planned to stay in Austin and get married, but my plan was not to stay in Austin, it was to go to LA or New York and seek my fame and fortune as a performer, writer, guitar player, and wild person with a Marshall Stack. [Laughs]
Thanks, Carla Olson, for talking to us! http://www.carlaolson.com