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Making tracks to train music

KXCI radio host Michael Hyatt turns an affinity for the genre into a series of raved-about compilation CDs.

DANIEL BUCKLEY Citizen Music Writer

When Michael Hyatt embarked to collect railroad songs, he had no idea it would be a journey without end. Years later, he’s still chugging along, filling boxcars with tunes about America’s iron horse.

November, Hyatt’s third volume of a compilation of railroad songs, ”Night Train,” was released on CD. He’s become a recognized expert in the genre.

It all started innocently enough. Hyatt, 52, is the director of underwriting sales for community radio station KXCI and hosts ”Route 66” Tuesdays from 7-9 p.m. While on the air one Saturday afternoon about six years ago during pledge time, Hyatt played a train song and got a call. The caller, Walter L. Cole, explained that he was a regular listener to Hyatt’s show, loved train songs in particular, and then offered a $600 pledge, adding that he would match all money that came in by the end of the program. Considering the usual pledge was in the $50 range, it got Hyatt’s attention.

After the show, Hyatt phoned the man back and asked if the total of $960 would be a problem. ”’Not at all,” the donor replied, explaining that he owned a charter airline (the now defunct Viscount Air Services) and that trains had always been a source of fascination. He and his family had left Oklahoma, dead broke with a mattress on the roof of the car, heading to California. They lived in a boxcar in Bakersfield for two years.

Hyatt was moved by the man’s story. At the same time, he was intrigued by the sheer number of railroad songs he kept running across. Something clicked. The brain train was rolling and gathering momentum.

Always on the lookout for themes for his show, he began jotting down train song titles on paper. Soon after, he was digging through his entire record collection, those of friends, and the station’s collection, too, on the prowl for more songs of the rails. The list grew unwieldy as many more titles were added, so Hyatt tossed the paper list and began entering song information into a computer database. The iron horse was dragging Hyatt kicking and screaming into the 20th century. By then he’d tallied hundreds of railroad songs, ranging from country and bluegrass to R&B, blues, folk and pop. And the list kept growing. Amassing that information triggered another desire.

”I had wanted to approach a record company about doing a compilation disc for a long time,” he says. ”For me it was either Rounder or Rhino Records. Rounder had just had big success with Alison Krauss so I gave them a call.

”I got hold of the woman in charge of special projects. She said, ‘We’ve had that on our list for 20 years and never got started. Why don’t you send us a proposal?’ ”

It took Hyatt about six weeks to put the materials together, but it struck pay dirt. The owners of Rounder liked the concept of a compilation that crossed musical boundaries while maintaining a common theme. They also liked the quality of the proposal, the thoroughness of his research, his musical taste and his choice of partners for the liner notes – railroad authority Norm Cohen. So Hyatt got the nod for two CDs, with the option to contract for more should the first two do well in the press and in stores.

That was just the start. While the Rounder crew went to work on getting permission from the various record companies to use the tunes Hyatt had selected, Hyatt continued to work out the ideal order of tunes and gather more material.

”I make tapes and listen to them in the car,” Hyatt explains. ”I’ve probably listened to these songs several hundred times, really paying attention to what they’re singing about. I’ve got this little database in my head.

”I’ve discovered that there’s not only literally hundreds of train songs but there are many subthemes. Anything from songs about real trains to life’s railway to heaven – a metaphor for a journey to salvation. I went from having a list of songs to having a list of themes. It was real important for me to include as many themes as possible.”

Hyatt was busy boning up on the history of the railroad and its significance to American history as well. In the process, he got talking to the man who did the watercolor paintings on each volume – Ted Rose – about trains. Rose was an avid delta blues fan with a pet theory that the rhythms of the Illinois Central that linked the delta with Chicago provided many a rhythmic starting point to classic delta blues. That, too, cooked in Hyatt’s noggin as the project clacked along.

The first two volumes, focusing on early and classic country train songs, were released in 1997 to rave reviews. Then Vol. 3 came out in November of 1998, this time focusing on the African-American blues, jazz and R&B side of the tale.

And Hyatt’s still at it, working on material for Vol. 4 while chugging further and further into both the music and the sounds of the trains themselves.

”What’s great about this journey I’m on is that it’s endless,” Hyatt says. ”One day I was driving around, listening to KXCI, and I heard this traditional folk group from the Andes. They’d recorded it live in the field next to a railroad track. You heard the apparatus go down to stop traffic – the ‘ding, ding, ding, ding.’ And in the end they shot a rocket off. They did this a couple of times. It was amazing. I want to include more railroad sounds on one of the future volumes.

”The steam whistle that starts Volume 2 – Johnny Cash’s ‘Casey Jones.’ That is a beautiful piece of music in and of itself. It had to be recorded in a valley because it just echoes.”

And the music rolls on.

Michael Hyatt’s Train Songs Collections

Vol. I: Train 45: Railroad Songs of the Early 1900s, featuring Steve Ledford, Wade Mainer and Zeke Morris; Curly Fox; The Arizona Wranglers; The Lullaby Larkers; Jolly Two; G.B. Grayson and Henry Whitter; Wade Mainer and the Sons of the Mountaineers; Gene McNulty; Crowder Brothers; Joe ”Cannonball” Lewis; George Edgin; Andrew and Jim Baxter; Lew Childre; Palmer McAbee; Jerry and Sky; Homer and Jethro; Harry McClintock; Section Crew; Convicts of Cummins Farm, Gould, Ark.; the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet; Sam McGee; and Uncle Dave Macon. (Rounder 1143)

Vol. II: Mystery Train: Classic Railroad Songs, featuring Johnny Cash; Whitstein Brothers; Steve Goodman; Sleepy LaBeef; Carter Family; Flatt & Scruggs; Delmore Brothers and Wayne Raney; Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys; Hank Snow; Patsy Cline; Tony Rice Unit; Jim & Jesse; Stanley Brothers; and Mary McCaslin. (Rounder 1129)

Vol. III: Night Train: Classic Railroad Songs, featuring Louis Jordan; The Delta Rhythm Boys; Muddy Waters; Jesse Fuller; The Holmes Brothers; Linda Tillery & The Cultural Heritage Choir; Little Esther and the Robins; Henry ”Ragtime Texas” Thomas; Little Junior Parker & His Blue Flames; Bill Doggett; Nora Lee King; Joe Turner with Pete Johnson’s Orchestra; Sister Rosetta Tharpe with Lucky Millinder’s Orchestra; and Brenda Boykin with the Johnny Nocturne Band. (Rounder 1144)

You can check out all of the artwork, liner notes and even sound clips on Hyatt’s Web site, www.railroadsongs.com.

PHOTO: MARY CHIND/Tucson Citizen

When it comes to songs about the railroads, Tucsonan Michael Hyatt is an expert.

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