Eric Brace And The Enduring Appeal Of Last Train Home
I pulled an old double CD off the shelf this week as I thought about the impact Eric Brace has had on Music City in the twenty years he’s lived here. The Other Side: Music From East Nashville, released in 2006 on Brace’s own Red Beet Records, is a document of a special time. Its 31 tracks are bookended by songs by Todd Snider, the eccentric grandmaster of story songs in the 37206 zip code. In between we hear gems by Paul Burch, Jon Byrd, Amelia White, Mack Starks, Tim Carroll, Elizabeth Cook, Tom Mason, and other friends and neighbors. The music scene they built changed the global reputation of Nashville itself, while The Other Side (there were ultimately three volumes) told their story better than any New York Times writeup.
“We would go and see people playing at the old Radio Cafe and at the 5 Spot and all these places in East Nashville, and it just felt like it was zipping by so quickly,” Brace says in Episode 216 of The String. “And we were like, let's just capture this moment in time. And I think that's what it does. It was just when East Nashville was starting to kind of explode. And everybody was kind of firing on all cylinders. And I just thought, this is important.”
Brace already knew something about recognizing and chronicling music scenes. Prior to moving to Nashville in 2003, he’d been an arts journalist for The Washington Post. First it was galleries and visual arts. Then he got the chance to shift to nightlife and music, covering everything from metal and bluegrass to hip-hop and go-go in the nation’s capital. By that time, he’d already formed several bands between college in Boston and young life in Washington, culminating in the outfit Last Train Home, which released its first music - songs written and sung by Brace - in 1997.
Unlike some of its late 90s alt-country peers, Last Train Home didn’t throw post punk haymakers like The Old 97s or Son Volt. They were mellower and lusher, with a trumpet and saxophone playing off steel guitar by DC veteran pedal steel player Dave Van Allen. LTH has a way of swinging without being a swing band, and Brace’s love for the modern bluegrass harmonies of the Seldom Scene shines through as well. They built an enthusiastic fan base and began touring, with enough momentum that by the early 2000s, Brace decided to pause his work for the Post and take the band full time. That’s when trips to Nashville to play shows made the city look attractive.
“It was extraordinary. I met so many people. And I thought this is the place to be. We need to come down here,” Brace says. The band’s rhythm section, drummer Martin Lynds and bass player Jim Gray, moved as well, and are now widely heard musicians in the city. “You know, I missed all the guys up in DC, but I was making this whole new set of musician friends and pals who were inspiring to me to do new and different things with Last Train Home. And I was thrilled by it. And so we were on the road pretty steadily for about three or four years there.”
That’s also when Red Beet Records took shape, not only releasing The Other Side anthology and Last Train Home albums like Last Good Kiss (2007) and Live At Iota (2008) (which, in full disclosure, this correspondent filmed for the label’s DVD release of the same show), but branching out to other artists and special projects. Tennessean alumnus Peter Cooper, a fellow music journalist and songwriting artist, was a major instigator on the Red Beet label, releasing solo records and important partnership projects with pedal steel icon Lloyd Green and dobro star Mike Auldridge. Cooper produced two albums by singer Fayssoux Starling McLean and joined Brace to co-produce a Red Beet homage to Tom T. Hall that earned a Grammy nomination. Brace and Cooper put out duo projects and then added guitarist and songwriter Thomm Jutz for an acoustic trio that’s played nationally and internationally. Brace says his personal favorite project was recruiting soul and R&B singer Jerry Lawson out of retirement to make Just A Mortal Man in 2015.
The latest from Red Beet are the latest albums from Last Train Home, a band that rarely plays shows anymore but remains a vehicle for Brace’s songs and vision. In 2019 he oversaw recording sessions in Nashville and DC for Daytime Highs and Overnight Lows, their first disc in 10 years. “And I was really happy with that record, and I thought well maybe this is it,” Brace told me. “Maybe we've said all we have to say, or maybe I've written all the songs I want to write. I had no idea what was gonna happen. I thought, I'm gonna write a screenplay or I'm gonna work in my garden. You know, I was about to turn 60. And things were changing, and then all of a sudden, the pandemic hit. And I couldn't help writing a few slightly pandemic inspired songs.”
He considered releasing them as solo work, but he started hearing his old rhythm section and his old horn section in his head, and when he surveyed the band, they were up for a radical new approach - a virtual album made by shuttling parts around the country and building them into mixes. And it works beautifully. Dave Van Allen’s steel is back, trilling on the Thomm Jutz song “Lilly of the Day.” Kevin Cordt’s trumpet and Chris Watling’s sax razzle up the bouncing Brace number “If I Had A Nickel.” While “Just A Moment” marks the bizarre stillness of the pandemic shutdown with signature zen country vocals from Brace.
“It just felt like there was something that we all needed to say together as a group,” Brace says. “And I think we did it.”