IBMA Songwriter Showcase & The Great Northern Railroad

World of Bluegrass LogoI am excited and honored to be one of a handful of songwriters selected for the International Bluegrass Music Association’s (IBMA) Songwriter Showcase at the World of Bluegrass convention in Nashville, TN this week. Although songwriting is a serious passion of mine, I have always found writing lyrics in the traditional bluegrass style to be quite a challenge. Not only because I am a northern urbanite who started out playing rock and roll and only discovered bluegrass later in life, but more so because I am not a particularly strong fiction writer. Previous attempts I have made to incorporate references to the culture or geography of the rural south in my songs have come off sounding contrived and disingenuous, a far cry from the soulful bluegrass songs that I love. In order for me to write a bluegrass song that I could be proud of, it had to be based on my own experiences, relationships, history etc..

“Skagit railroad crewman, 1929” by Seattle Municipal Archives Archives (c) Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

This is why I am truly overjoyed to have been chosen for this showcase based on a song that I wrote about my own grandfather and his time working on the Great Northern Railway. Unfortunately, he didn’t live long enough for me to really get to know him, but by all accounts, he had a very hard life. The son of Irish immigrants, he was pulled out of school at an early age to work on a neighbors farm to bring in more money for his family. He eventually got a job for the Great Northern Railway, working at a St. Paul rail yard, but after years of service he suffered a permanent injury and was forced to quit. He turned to the bottle, which only made things worse for him and his family. His story does not have a happy ending.

Although these stories and my few memories paint a fairly dark picture of my grandfather, I have also heard bits and pieces over the years about a younger, sober man that could be very kind and loving, who had a big laugh and a wonderful singing voice. Although I cannot pretend to really know either version of him, I understand the complexities of the human condition and would like to believe that he did the best he could with what he had. What I can say for certain, is that he worked very hard to raise a family and help them move ahead in this world and, if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have the opportunities that I have today, including playing music and writing songs. So I go to Nashville this week to honor this opportunity and the man that helped make it possible.

Here is the rough demo version of the song that I submitted for the showcase, just me and a guitar:

      Great Northern Railroad by Anthony Ihrig

A recent live version:

And here are the lyrics of the song:

The Great Northern Railroad

by Anthony Ihrig

I punch the clock at dawn and work the rail yard all day long
I walk them tracks with a crooked back whistlin’ a worried song
At the end of every day, I head to the bar and stay
‘Till all my aches and sorrows have been drowned

On that Great Northern Railroad, I’ve lived life and grown old
And I’ve left my dreams behind
But perhaps on account of me my kids will never have to see
Life on that Great Northern Railroad line

Time has had its way with me, and so has the company
Now I walk with a cane and live with the pain of my injuries
I once laid these tracks with pride, for a train I’d never ride
And I guess that’s going to be my legacy

On that Great Northern Railroad, I’ve lived life and grown old
And I’ve left my dreams behind
But perhaps on account of me my kids will never have to see
Life on that Great Northern Railroad line

I care for my family so, but reckon they’ll never know
Unless I lay that bottle down I don’t let it show
I’m just a lovin’, angry man, unhappy with the good Lord’s plan
And I pray I’ll be forgiven when I go

On that Great Northern Railroad, I’ve lived life and grown old
And I’ve left my dreams behind
But perhaps on account of me my kids will never have to see
Life on that Great Northern Railroad line
But perhaps on account of me my grandkids will never have to see
Life on that Great Northern Railroad line

  • Frailin

    Yay!! Fabulous Tony!!

    Craig

  • bob woodburn

    Beautiful music. See you at 318. Bob (friend of Jack)

    • Thanks for the kind words Bob, I look forward to seeing you at the 318.