red lights


Riding the rails to rock n' roll

Amtrak's City of New Orleans train
Chicago, IL- New Orleans, LA
Willie Nelson
Willie Nelson
Jewel -  2006 CMT Awards
Jewel - 2006 CMT Awards
Arlo Guthrie aboard Amtrak
Arlo Guthrie aboard Amtrak

Story and photos by Andy Argyrakis
Photo of Counting Crows by Phil Bonyata

The City of New Orleans train is one of the most historic and often traveled routes of the modern era laden with a rich musical heritage that even has a title track to go along with the journey. And no, I'm not talking about the literal track on which the train wheel's roll, but rather the tune first made famous by folk hero Arlo Guthrie and later his country counterpart Willie Nelson. It's a tune I've known all my life but had the chance to live out first hand last December when hopping aboard the Amtrak route itself with a tour by Arlo Guthrie & Friends to benefit the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Arlo Guthrie jammin' on AmtrakAs chronicled by a series of journal styled articles and photo galleries on ConcertLivewire late last year, the jaunt accomplished its goal, but also brought together a series of musicians, media, volunteers and fans from all walks of life, who might not normally get together under any other circumstance, especially this through particular means of travel.

Though I consider myself a frequent flier (it comes with the full time territory of rock criticism and photography) along with the occasional long distance driver (either by tour bus or car) I'll admit to being almost entirely ignorant that Amtrak could do the trick as well. And as I dove deeper into the aforementioned tour, catching many scenic stops along the way and stories from a slew of artists about the impact of the area, I must say I gained an additional appreciation for the transportation option. So when it came time to return to New Orleans to cover the coveted Jazz & Heritage Festival, I couldn't help but consider the train a viable option, especially with the elevated prices of fuel, thus increasing airplane ticket prices in an already odd post-natural disaster flight schedule.

So there I went, the Friday before the second weekend of the city's most widely attended music festival boarding the City of New Orleans in Union Station and taking it overnight to my destination of choice. And along the way there were plenty of towns to take in looking out the window, from good old Kankakee, Illinois (a key city in the aforementioned Arlo ditty) to Memphis, Tennessee (Graceland and Al Green's church anyone?) to Jackson, Mississippi (deep down in the delta blues). Somewhere in between the last two stops, the idea occurred to me of hitting up the rails some other time and jumping off in one of those cities, maybe for the equally huge Beale Street Music Festival (ironically the same weekend as the Jazz & Heritage Festival). The more I pondered the thought and as I began poking around internet sites like Pollstar or the brains of Amtrak officials (like fellow Arlo tour alum Jerome Trahan, the company's sales and marketing associate) I realized there were quite a few options out there this summer, including the following:

-June 3 and 4: Highway 61 Blues Festival/ Leland, MS. Performers include Bobby Rush, T-Model Ford, Willie King and the Liberators plus Lil' Dave Thompson. Counting Crows (

-Labor Day weekend: The Mississippi Jazz and Heritage Festival/ Greenville, MS. The free event is in its eleventh year featuring Greenville's most prolific jazz players across several generations. (

-September 2: Farish Street Heritage Festival/ Jackson, MS. This year's theme is "understanding our our future" and is slated to feature a main stage, heritage stage, gospel stage and central stage. (

-September 16: Mississippi Delta Blues and Heritage Festival/ Greenville, MS. Headliners are Bobby Bland, Shirley Brown, Bobby Rush and Tito Jackson of Jackson Five fame. (

-Summer 2006: Verizon Wireless Music Center Concert Series / Birmingham, AL (a destination on Amtrak's Crescent line) Highlights include Gretchen Wilson and Trace Adkins with Blaine Larson May 27, Rob Thomas and Jewel with Toby Lightman June 21, The Black Crowes with Robert Randolph & the Family Band and Drive By Truckers June 28, Three Doors Down and Lynyrd Skynyrd July 21, Willie Nelson and John Fogerty July 26, Counting Crows and Goo Goo Dolls September 5 (

While it may be tight time wise on my end to hit all of the above (though many would be desirable) other music lovers who can't get their fix in Chicago will certainly make the rounds. When I first left Chicago and also on my return the following Monday, many of the other passengers were also heading back from the Jazz & Heritage Festival (with some sprinkled in from Beale Street) allowing us all to swap stories in the dining car and lounge areas. Basically the train could be considered a giant six car tour bus where there's an option to reside in a sleeper car (my personal recommendation since it has the most space) a roomette or a general coach seat. I enjoyed having the ability to stretch out on a relatively comfortable futon styled bed, have an extra chair to kick up my feet and my own bathroom, shower and sink (despite all being a bit on the tiny side).

For the more economically conscious, the roomette seemed adequate (though also quite close on space) and the coach seats seemed far enough apart to work out for a route's duration. But back to that tour bus comparison, a lounge allowed everyone to chill and catch a flick or down a drink.Rober Randolph It's also where the most interesting conversations took place and quick friendships could form before making a trip to the dining car. Though hot grub could be considered costly by non-city folk (burgers were around $8 and an individual roasted chicken pizza for a buck more) a snack stand allowed for cheaper, pre-packaged eats.

After putting on some pounds between those two places on the return trip, I headed back to my sleeper room and switched between various Paul Simon CDs, I also browsed through the new biography book Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock N' Roll, which I picked up in New Orleans. As I read author Rick Coleman's assessment of the superstar's early days of pioneering the genre and seeing old black and white photos of his performances, it dawned on me that this very method of travel was a regular means for entertainers as they performed all across the country. Artists like Domino, Louis Armstrong, Woody Guthrie and many of the early yet anonymous rockers, bluesmen and folk strummers must have used trains to capture the circuit, especially in the years before commercial flying was affordable and tour buses were commonplace.

As I pulled back into Chicago's Union Station Tuesday morning thirty five minutes before the ticketed time (something I can never say about O'Hare and Midway) an even deeper thought came to me. Perhaps it entered my mind because I was right in the heart of a city with such rich rock, blues and jazz roots (or maybe because I had the Chicago Blues Festival in mind for future article planning) but regardless of the reason, I may have stumbled onto something. Had those old school artists not been able to load up the train hatches and hit the country from coast to coast, would the windy city have developed musically in the same pattern of which we now know it today? Aside from records and radio, how would the legends been able to jam together and get in front of audiences to practice, refine and reform their craft?

As Arlo himself told me when we sat on the City of New Orleans several months earlier, trains were often used by his father and just so happened to be the first means of transportation available after Hurricane Katrina (and I later learned the same was true for the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York). It's safe to say that besides being up and running during those catastrophic events, they significantly contributed to the early roots of many genres, thus assisting as one of the various variables in making music the treasured American tradition that it's become today.

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