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Musical Adventures Songwriting Video

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:

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

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Musical Adventures

MBOTMA Festival 2012!

Anthony Ihrig at the Minnesota Bluegrass & Old-Time Music Festival
Photo by Jeanne Christopher

We went entirely acoustic for the Minnesota Bluegrass & Old-Time Music Association’s 32nd annual Festival in early August. It was a real honor to be invited to play this great bluegrass festival and share the stage with bands like Chris Jones & The Nightdrivers (who were great),  Robin & Linda Williams & Their Fine Group and  The Larry Stephenson Band. The weather was absolutely perfect and we had an amazing time!

We decided to pull more from the traditional side of our repertoire for our sets, so Jed left his pedal steel at home and brought his fiddle instead! We cut loose on some traditional numbers like a twin fiddle version of Bill Monroe’s “Roanoke” and Dan sang an inspired version of the Hazel Dickens classic, “Wont You Come And Sing for Me.” I also dusted off   “Great Northern Railroad,” in preparation for the 2012 IBMA Songwriter Showcase in Nashville next month (more on that in an upcoming post).

Filming Tombigbee River/Gum Tree Canoe
Preparing to Film Tombigbee River/Gum Tree Canoe

The highlight of the festival for me took place far from the main stage, on Old Wash Machine Hill Saturday evening. My friend Craig Evans, a great old-time banjo player and the creator of the wonderful Conversations with North American Banjo Builders video series, organized a sing-along jam as a capstone for his video project. You can watch it here. I think it captures the essence of what bluegrass festivals are all about: camping, jamming, sing-alongs, potlucks… community.

And in case you’re interested, here’s some footage from my Almost Entirely Acoustic Ensemble’s Friday afternoon set: