Their Train Keeps A Rollin'

The Railbenders' take on traditional country is gaining momentum.

Jim Dalton can tell that his band, the Railbenders, are growing more popular with each show they play. It's as clear as the hats on the heads of the fans who show up, in greater numbers each time, to hear them.

"A lot of people have come up to me recently and said we're giving them an excuse to wear their cowboy hats out in public," says Dalton.

Considering that the Railbenders (vocalist/guitarist Dalton, lead guitarist Chris Flynn, bassist Tyson Murray and drummer Gordon Beesley) play straight-no-chaser country, those are welcome testimonials. Over the past year, the 'Benders have been earning the respect of country-loving fans who normally toil on the fringes of the area music scene. The band has an unofficial home at the Lincoln's Roadhouse near the University of Denver (the former location of the Washington Street Exit), where the mix of blue-collar types, bikers and DU students now looks to the Railbenders for frequent doses of traditional twang. But the band is also expanding its reach to other area clubs, bringing with it bent variations on the music that made Waylon Jennings, Johnny Paycheck and David Allan Coe famous.

All aboard (from left): Chris Flynn, Jim Dalton, Gordon Beesley and Tyson Murray are the Railbenders.
All aboard (from left): Chris Flynn, Jim Dalton, Gordon Beesley and Tyson Murray are the Railbenders.
All aboard (from left): Chris Flynn, Jim Dalton, Gordon Beesley and Tyson Murray are the Railbenders.
All aboard (from left): Chris Flynn, Jim Dalton, Gordon Beesley and Tyson Murray are the Railbenders.

That Dalton is now playing tunes and writing songs that recall those artists is more than a little surprising to him.

"It's funny," he says. "Country is what I rebelled against as a kid. I didn't like it a bit. I used to have arguments with my dad about it. Now it's all I want to listen to. I'm a country freak."

Of course, Dalton's not the first rocker to make the shift to country music. As with his predecessors, his reasons for doing so include the nostalgic appeal of the music. But beyond that, he says, his zeal is the result of having a few years of experience under his belt.

"I think when you're younger, you don't understand it," Dalton says of country music. Young people, he notes, "listen more for the energy rather than the melody of the songs and the stories in the songs. They want it hard, loud and fast, to have a good time and mosh."

Those factors, he surmises, often rule out country as a music option among the younger, rock-loving set, a demographic he was a member of while growing up in Loveland. The music scene there, he says, "was non-existent," subsisting primarily on the rock bands led by the town's reigning guitar hero, Dave Beegle. Dalton eventually became a guitarist himself and began handling guitar chores for area rock bands. Imagining a land of greater opportunity, he moved to California, eventually returning to Denver in 1988.

For a few years, Dalton played guitar in the Simpletones, a local alternative rock band. He met Tyson Murray a couple of years ago, when the two played in a local swing act called the Shaken Martinis. When the swing phenomenon began to peter out in Denver, Dalton and Murray (who once played slap bass with the Throttlemen) began indulging their love for country music. The current lineup was secured a few months ago, when the group landed ex-Brethren Fast drummer Gordon Beesley and Chris Flynn, a guitar ace who's played in mainstream country bands around town.

The group's collective efforts can be heard on Southbound, its debut release. Recorded at the Time Capsule in Lakewood, the disc is an impressive collection of '70s-era country tunes (some of which received lyrical help from Jim Valentine, a friend from Pueblo) that should appeal to fans of Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and other contemporary torchbearers. "SouthBound" is an open-prairie "Ghost Riders"-ish tune built on minor chords and stinging slide guitar from Flynn. Dalton, who handles vocals on most of the record, sings the tune in a neighborly baritone better suited to whiskey sippin' and contemplation than hard drinkin' and hell-raisin'. His voice is a cross between that of Junior Brown and some Western-swing crooner. What he lacks in technical terms he makes up for with a comfortable, buddy-at-the-bar lack of pretense: "I have the range of a BB gun," Dalton says of his pipes.

"Lonesome Train" is a choice weeper highlighted by Dalton's oaken vocals, tear-jerking guitar from Flynn and just enough momentum from Murray and Beesley to hold it all together. "Texas Sun" features some hot Luther Perkins-like picking over a solid train beat from Beesley, while "Whiskey Saturday Night" is crowd-pleasing country with a hooky sing-along chorus. "Dead Man's Walk" takes things down several beats per minute in an instrumental sweetened by Duane Eddy-style string bends and Ventures-ish, Mexican-flavored picking.

These assets are contrasted by just a few shortcomings. At times, the band's playing on the disc, which was recorded last September, fails to present the commanding tightness that has come to characterize the Railbenders' live show, something Dalton attributes to in-the-studio jitters. Several of Southbound tunes ("Whiskey Drinking Man," "Minus One") are less-than-inspired compositions that come across a shade simplistic and underdeveloped. "Breakneck Speed," a rocker in the Reverend Horton Heat vein, sports a dated racing-with-the-devil story line that might please the vintage-minded hot-rod set but sounds mighty awkward in the year 2001. Overall, though, these shortcomings don't detract from the fact that Southbound is a fine little record. Besides, Dalton says, he's not bothered by the notion that some of the album's themes sound a shade familiar.

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