Billy Bragg once toured the UK by British Rail, rocking up in cities with guitar in hand and loudspeakers on his shoulders. More than 30 years later, he boarded the Texas Eagle with American singer friend Joe Henry and rode across the US, recording this album of old folk railroad songs on platforms and in waiting rooms along the way. The combination of background sounds and voices from Essex and North Carolina brings a Transatlantic feel to songs steeped in Americana: all weary hobos, Lonesome Whistles and Midnight Specials. It sounds like it was a lot of fun, the pair alternating and sharing vocals on songs from the likes of Lead Belly and Jimmie Rodgers. They’re more than train songs, and brim with tales of capitalist enslavement and hopes of freedom. The engine chugs once or twice, but Waiting for a Train finds Bragg actually yodelling and the tender treatment of John Hartford’s Gentle on My Mind (a 1967 hit for Glen Campbell) is a revelation.
Billy Bragg & Joe Henry: Shine a Light review – Essex to Carolina on railroad songs
Dave Simpson is a Guardian music critic and author