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True North: Blackwater Railroad Company create the sound of Alaska

by John Adamian

| @johnradamian

What’s the sound of Alaska? Blackwater Railroad Company, an Alaskan band whose frontman originally comes from the Greensboro area, is one version of the sound.

We tend to attach a lot of meaning to place and provenance when it comes to music. For many of us, Brazil conjures samba and bossa nova. The Mississippi Delta evokes the country blues. Nashville means country music. Seattle equals grunge. Even places like Chapel Hill and Athens, Georgia have their own sonic slices that round out a portion of the indie rock pie-chart. It’s an oversimplified system, a kind of mental shorthand that sometimes helps us pigeonhole sounds on a map. But Alaska — that big chunk of land up north, above Canada, where the sun hardly sets or hardly rises, depending on the time of year — hasn’t filled a lot of space in the musical imagination, at least not to most of us in the Lower 48. Okay, there’s Jewel and that cool Inuit throatsinging breathing game where people get up in each other’s faces and try to outdo each other. But when we hear that a band like Blackwater Railroad Company, is from Alaska, it doesn’t necessarily give us any clues as to what they might sound like. Could be metal, could be country, could be EDM.

In the case of Blackwater Railroad Company, whose frontman Tyson Davis originally comes from Sophia, south of Greensboro, and who are playing their first North Carolina show this week, the band’s sound and their whole mode of existence has a lot to do with Alaska. Blackwater Railroad Company fuses elements of folk and Americana, with a kind of theatrical whiskey-swilling sawdust-kicking frontier twist, as if they walked off the set of “Deadwood” or “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.” There’s a lawless, Wild West vibe to the band’s sound and presentation. Vocal harmonies mixed with bowed strings and songs loaded with stories of fugitives and backwoods justice. The narratives are as central as the melodies to the music. It’s like square-dance music for bikers or lumberjacks. You can hear a connection to bands like the Avett Brothers and Blitzen Trapper, pointing even farther back to the sandblasted sorrow of Townes Van Zandt or the cowboy tunes of Tex Ritter.

Davis moved to Seward, Alaska in 2007, when he was 21.

“A girl talked me into it,” says Davis. “It turned out I liked Seward a lot more than I did her.”

When he first got to Alaska, Davis was living out of his VW for a while, working odd jobs and traveling. He hadn’t considered making a career in music, though he’d done musical theater, choir and even sang in a barbershop quartet in North Carolina before heading north. But he says he’s solidified roots in Alaska at this point.

“It’s changed my entire life,” says Davis.

“Whatever I put into that place it gives back to me tenfold.” And he has put a fair bit into it, starting a not-for-profit organization with some of his musician peers to provide loaner instruments and instruction to youth in rural communities.

Alaska seeped into his life, and he seeped into Alaska, starting a band that’s made a name for itself in the largest state, logging hours and hours in transit getting from one gig to the next, sometimes taking ferries, sometimes hitting the open road. Their record’s title, “Sound of Home,” suggests the extent to which this band of transplants has made roots in Seward. The group is only three years old, but since they focus on entertaining their community, which isn’t overrun with live music acts, the band doesn’t necessarily have to fight for attention. There’s a steady stream of tourists and wanderers who pass through to see the glaciers, dog sledding, the expansive wilderness or any of Alaska’s other charms, and as a result Blackwater Railroad Company gets to reach a global audience of travelers from their semi-remote spot south of Anchorage on the Kenai Peninsula. And the livemusic audiences in Alaska are perhaps more hungry to check out any acts that make the trip than, say, the somewhat jaded residents of a college town might be elsewhere.

“Up there, live music is very special,” says Davis.

Davis comes from a North Carolina farming family. He may not be from Alaska originally, but Alaska has lots of people just like him, people who wanted to get away from the hustle of modern life and carve out an existence that’s somehow closer to something timeless and essential. Fitting in there might mean you don’t quite fit in anywhere else.

“The counter-culture is just the culture in Alaska,” says Davis. “It’s shot full of extremes. Not much moderate in any direction.”

Alaska, in its way, is a little like New York City and Hollywood or Key West — it’s a place that people come to because of all the lore surrounding it. Unlike those more densely populated spots, part of the lure of Alaska is the libertarian dream of being left alone, being allowed to do whatever the hell you like as long as you can survive the extreme conditions. Reflecting on Alaska during his time back in North Carolina, Davis was already sounding homesick for his vast and frigid adopted state.

“There’s too many people down here for me,” says Davis. “Up there you can really stretch out your legs. I adore that.”

Blackwater Railroad Company play The Blind Tiger on Jan. 15, 1819 Spring St., Greensboro, (336) 272-9888, theblindtiger.com. The band plays Mebane’s Clay Street Tavern on Jan. 16 and Millikan Farms in Sophia on Jan. 17. For more information go to blackwaterrailroad.com. !

JOHN ADAMIAN lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.

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