Longtime followers of jamgrass titans Railroad Earth aren't surprised by the band's resilient spirit since co-founding member Andy Goessling died last fall on the second day of the band's own fall festival, called Hillberry, near Eureka Springs.
That resilience has carried them through a difficult winter and follows them to Texas this week as Railroad Earth kicks off its spring tour in Houston on Wednesday night, then a Thursday night performance at Dallas' Granada Theater. Opening for RRE at the Granada will be Austin-based psychedelic-folk act The Deer.
As Hillberry's host band for the past three years, Railroad Earth typically headlines on Saturday and Sunday nights, but early that Friday morning, Oct. 12, word began to spread among the 3,500 in attendance that Goessling would not perform with them this time — or ever again.
Even in the midst of palpable grief, though, Railroad Earth's five remaining members played both nights as scheduled; frontman Todd Sheaffer explained at the beginning of their Saturday set that playing the music he loved so much is undoubtedly "what Andy would have wanted."
"Andy never complained about anything," bassist Andrew Altman said earlier this week in an interview with the Dallas Observer. "If someone said we have to play and tour for three weeks in a row, he'd just say, 'OK let’s go!' I mean I never heard him raise his voice ever in nine years. If something dramatic like this happened to him, he’d still be out there onstage, playing his heart out."
Healing and going forward since Goessling's death after a battle with cancer have been difficult, not just for the band as a group but for the individual members, Altman says.
"It's very complicated, how losing a fellow band member changes you," says Altman, a member of RRE since 2010. "I know it sounds cliché, but clichés exist for a reason. You really do realize what matters and what doesn't."
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He says the death of his bandmate and beloved friend was the closest loss he has experienced, and he knew Goessling the least, since Altman was the last to join the band.
"Tim (Carbone) has known Andy longer than I've been alive," he says. "I can't even get my head around that. But yeah, his death caught me off guard. I mean it was very sudden. I saw him two days before he died. I’ve lost a close friend before and a beloved family member, but neither was someone I spent every day with. So it has really impacted me more than I expected, losing someone I was basically living with, or was living with more than 100 days a year for the last nine years ...
"As a band we often got wrapped up in the details, the logistics of touring, whatever. But every show we played with Andy, we were just getting closer to our last show with Andy. This loss has definitely impacted our relationships within the band."
Their healing process has been more of an unspoken thing, Altman says, but it's happening, in a lot of small ways.
For example, earlier this year, Railroad Earth recorded a new album at The Parlor Recording Studio in New Orleans. In the past, Altman noted spending time together during off-time had not been a priority.
But in New Orleans, he said, "The band would all go out to dinner after working in the studio, which is not something we’ve really done much; everyone has their own routine on tour.
"So we have been stuck in those routines for a long time, and now Andy’s gone, and we have to make an effort to enjoy life and each other, drop our guards a little more, have conversations about something other than the logistics of touring or the music business," Altman says. "So we are trying to feel as much like a band as we can given what we lost in Andy."
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The loss is enormous not just emotionally and physically, but also musically. During his 17-year run with Railroad Earth, Goessling played acoustic and electric guitars, banjo, dobro, mandolin, flute, penny whistle, bass clarinet, percussion, clarinet, lap steel, soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone and baritone saxophone. And he could sing, too.
Meanwhile, just like a well-written song that inspires the listener to acknowledge an ugly truth but find a way to celebrate anyway, Railroad Earth will continue as a living example of the resilience that has been part of their sound since 2001.
"The energy these past several months has been different and uplifting, as far as it being a new chapter,” Altman says. “It’s not a chapter we would choose, of course, but given that we were forced into this situation, we’re making the most of it.”