Be honest–when you think of New Jersey, you generally don’t associate it with bluegrass music. Perhaps that’s why it’s so surprising to learn that Railroad Earth, currently one of the most prolific bands in the genre, hail from Stillwater–a small town tucked far, far away from the Snookis and Pauly Ds that the state has become known for.

Formed nearly 15 years ago, the six members of Railroad Earth combine elements of bluegrass, rock n’ roll and folk music to create beautiful, Americana tunes. Through their rigorous tour schedule and involvement in the jam / improvisational music scene, it seems with every new year comes a new accomplishment for the band. Among them: selling out Red Rocks, performing onstage with Phil Lesh, and even their very own festival–The Hangtown Halloween Ball–which takes place this weekend in Placerville, CA.

We spoke with mandolinist John Skehan over the phone to learn more about the festival, as well as his history with bluegrass music and some of his most memorable experiences playing with Railroad Earth.

How did you guys get involved with Hangtown Halloween Ball, and are you dressing up as anything as a band?

It came about a number of years ago when the fellas from Pet Projekt–Ryan and Adam–were looking to put on a festival around Halloween out there, and they had reached out to us to see if we would want to play. They were just in the early stages of getting their lineup together, I think at that point they had David Grisman Quintet booked and a couple other things.

It was in Placerville, California, which–back in the old days in the Gold Rush in the Wild West it was known as “Hangtown” because a lot of folks got hung for misbehaving. So the wheels kind of started turning and we thought, “Wow, wonder if we could step in and partner up with this in some way, and why not call it the ‘Hangtown Halloween Ball‘ and see if we can’t make it an annual thing?” It took off from there, and we’ve been really lucky to have it work so well. Many, many thanks to the Pet Projekt guys for making it all happen.

As far as dressing up, we’ve done a couple of different things. Usually end up submitting ourselves to some face painting which is fun. Any kind of real elaborate costume gets a little bit difficult especially if you’re switching instruments in between songs.

You can paint your face as Juggalos and that can be your costume.

That might scare people a little bit too much, though. I hear those Juggalo gatherings get a little intense.

Is there anybody that you’re particularly excited to see perform at Hangtown this year?

It’s a great opportunity for us to kind of hook up with some long time old friends that we cross paths with on the road, but to be able to camp out at a festival for the weekend is something special. We’ve got New Monsoon, Leftover Salmon, we’ve had a long history with both those bands, Jeff Austin Band is gonna be there. And I think most recently our good friend Joe Graven, the master of percussionist–mandolinist, violinist–is going to be joining us to serve as MC and be on-hand to sit in and enhance the music all weekend long.

Do you see a big difference in the crowds on the East Coast versus the West Coast?

For us, yeah. We’ve been fortunate in that we’ve always seemed to have a larger crowd and a larger draw on the West Coast and in the West in general. I think it’s possibly through our own fault for spending so much time out there and not as much time out East.

You’ve played at tons of festivals this summer. Do you have anything that was most memorable?

Our show at Red Rocks on August 2 was definitely one of the highlights of the summer. This was our second event as headliner and it went better than any possible expectations we could’ve have. It was a great crowd and a great lineup, with our friends in Greensky Bluegrass and the Wood Brothers, we had a fellow working on some horn arrangements… and it all came together and was a blast. Certainly a very inspiring and humbling experience to be able to draw that big a crowd at such a beautiful venue after all these years.

I saw an interview in which you describe your first meeting with Phil Lesh, and how you ended up playing with him and covering a few Grateful Dead songs on stage with him. When something like that happens you must be up there thinking: “Holy sh*t, this is amazing.”

Yea, it is. And we’ve had an amazing bunch of good luck in terms of getting to meet and work with people like that. I think one of the first and earliest was Phil turning up and taking a liking to the band. And then having us play with his Phil & Friends at a Mardi Gras show, and then he’s had Tim Carbone, our fiddle player, and myself come out and join him for different special events. It’s just incredible. To me it was always, uhh, couldn’t quite believe it was happening because of the history I had with going to see The Dead and never imagining I would be involved. We’ve been lucky in that way, as I said, to be able to cross paths with some of these people who inspired us and had been our idols in some cases, to be able to play with them and among them.

When did you first learn how to play the mandolin?

I took it up a little more seriously a few years before the beginning of the band. Which has been going on about 15 years now. But I always kind of dabbled in it during a time when I was running around doing a little bit of everything… The lightbulb kind of went off the first time I wandered into a bluegrass festival–there’s a great one right on the border of New York and Massachusetts called Grey Fox, earlier on was known as Winterhawk before they changed the name. It was one of the first times I set out as I became more interested in traditional bluegrass and really learning about the music, went up there with my mandolin to camp out and pick as much as I could and just hear the music. I guess sitting outside on that hillside hearing the Del McCoury Band take the stage, feeling the hair on the back of my neck stand up as they hit the first song, I realized “OK, this is where it’s at.”

Why do you think the jam band genre feels so united and family-like?

I think the biggest reason for that is the nature of the music is improvisational. The bands are always trying to do something new on the spot, trying to challenge themselves and take themselves on a journey, as well as the audience. The audience is very tuned into that, and very well aware that they’re seeing something night to night that is happening in the moment, that it’s not something that they are going to experience again. There is a strong element of participation among the audience and the band, because you both know that you’re going to try to take a ride together, and whichever direction it goes, and each feeds on the energy of the other. And that drives a sense of community, I think, between the audience the bands and the musicians.

Couple that with the sense that we’re very very lucky in this scene in particular that the audience members aren’t just casual music fans, they thrive around live music and they plan their lives around it. Their vacations are centered around a band’s tour, or a destination trip like a festival or Jam Cruise or a trip to Mexico like we’re doing again this year for Strings & Sol. Their lives are very much entwined with music, which of course, so are the musicians’ lives. So it’s definitely a nice symbiosis happening there.

Can you tell me more about the Strings & Sol festival?

It’s a lot of fun. The same folks that put on Jam Cruise, Cloud 9, so it’s really well run, and as much of a fun adventure as Jam Cruise is, String & Sol is a little more laid back. There aren’t as many bands and the music schedule runs from the afternoon to 11 or 12 at night, so there’s plenty of time to relax and chill and enjoy your surroundings.

Where’s your favorite place to play in the country?

My favorite venue is wherever it feels like everything is clicking. Red Rocks is thrilling and exciting, but I know there were probably a couple of moments in Lawrence, KS, last tour where it just felt like everything was on fire. So it really just depends on what’s happening that night no matter what.

(Photo courtesy Grateful Web)