Good luck fitting Railroad Earth into one genre, though it's not a square-peg-in-round-hole problem. Rather, the shape of the peg never stays the same for very long. It's bluegrass one song. Rock and roll the next. A jam band at one venue and a blues crew the next night.
"We kind of have our feet in several worlds simultaneously," said Tim Carbone, who plays violin for the group. "We're considered a jam band, but mostly that has to do with the fact that we appeal to people that like that kind of music and not because that's who we really are."
When the six-man ensemble sets up shop at Majestic Theatre for a two-night stay Thursday and Friday, they will feature a wealth of experience. As Railroad Earth, they've been together-aside from bassist Andrew Altman, who joined in 2010-for over a decade.
"When we began, the idea was let's just be open and keep a conversation going," Carbone said. "As we fell into that further and further ... it was very natural to begin with, but ... now it's almost like it's our collective DNA."
Those genes have roots in all sorts of music. On a studio album, there can be some delineation. Their latest, the self-titled Railroad Earth (2010), has more of a traditional rock 'n' roll feel to it. Carbone said it was marketed as being closer to pop than anything they have ever done. Earlier albums like Amen Corner (2007) and Bird in the House (2002) drift between twangy folk, heavy foot-stomping Celtic tones and more light, floral jam sessions.
In a live setting, though, elements from each are liable to be patched together as the six men and their countless instruments pick their way through songs in ways that change from night to night.
"What gives us freedom is that the songs that (we play live), the way their written or structured, there's room to move, there are places to be expansive," Carbone said.
Railroad Earth's songbook also allows for variety. Carbone-who turns 55 Thursday-said on the band would repeat only one or two songs on it's nine-show swing through the Midwest.
The long-haired Long Island, N.Y., native had three decades of music experience under his belt before Railroad Earth-named after a Jack Kerouac story-ever existed.
At 14 years old, Carbone heard Don "Sugarcane" Harris on a blues album that featured violin instead of guitar, and decided he would do the same. In the 1970's, he played fiddle in Long Island and modeled his music after The Flying Burrito Brothers.
Eventually, he played in a jump swing band for 19 years with current Railroad Earth mate Andy Goessling.
"I'm not a bluegrass fiddle player, I'm just a fiddle player," Carbone said. "Lay it on me. I'll make something up and you'll like it."
That seems to apply to the rest of the band, as well. There's little concern about where they fit or if the style is easy to articulate. They're just musicians; just storytellers.
"Everybody wants you to put it into something less than a sentence", said Carbone, who said he listens to a lot of Indian classical music and hears it in his play. "I used to call it ‘country and eastern', but that never quite did the trick. Then I thought it's sort of Americana except we have some Celtic themes and there's my Indian influence and we'll do some African style rhythm things, so it's not really Americana. It's trans-Americana."