All Aboard Amtrak to Bakersfield

Written by:

Trains and bluegrass go together like Lester and Earl, as J.D. would put it. You and I between us could probably come up with enough songs about trains off the top of our heads to keep a jam going for hours.

That’s pretty much what a small band of bluegrass brothers did on the way to the Great 48-Hour Jam in Bakersfield last January. We thought it might be fun to ride the Amtrak train from Emeryville to Bakersfield and see if we got thrown off the train for picking train songs.

I met intrepid fiddler Ron Esparza early Friday morning in downtown SF and we rode the Amtrak bus across the bay to the train station in Emeryville. Geoff Sargent and Peter Langston were waiting for us at the station. (It turns out, for future reference, that parking in the Amtrak station lot is free for ticket holders and there was plenty of it on this particular Friday morning, although whether that signifies a pattern I don’t know. And there’s overflow parking in the ramp across the street, which is not free but is subsidized by Amtrak.)

Aboard, we took a four-seat table on the lower level, which is technically senior and disabled territory but nobody was being picky while the train was mostly empty. Around Stockton it started filling up and we thought the conductor might make us move upstairs, but he took a look at Peter and Ron and said nothing. Geoff and I were grandfathered in, I guess you could say.
Right around Suisun, Geoff took out his Dobro and started noodling near the big luggage racks in the rear of the train car. The rest of us wandered over one by one. We were deep into Nine Pound Hammer when the conductor came through again. He went about his business and departed, appearing not to notice the ungodly racket.

Most of us, when we’re jamming, just kind of try our best and do just fine. There’s a select few jammers whose presence seems to raise everyone else’s game a notch. Turns out Peter is one of those. I know Geoff and Ron’s playing pretty well by now and I could tell they were feeling the lift too. We had a pretty damn fine groove going, in spite of the train rocking back and forth and the passengers lining up for the bathroom and the smiling conductor elbowing through on his rounds.

The trip from Emeryville to Bakersfield takes about six hours. In total we sat around shooting the breeze for an hour, picked for about three, had another good loiter (and a nap for me) and then the call came for Bakersfield, the end of the line. A shuttle van from the Doubletree picked us up at the station. By the time we got to the hotel we were feeling about as good as if we’d spent the day on our own back porch.

While we waited to check into the hotel, who should appear but the conductor of the train, in his civilian clothes. He normally stayed in the place across the street, he told us, but the Doubletree seemed like more fun this weekend.

About the next two days you know as much as I do. Band scramble, workshops, first time hearing the amazing Jeff Scroggins band, picking into the not-so-wee hours. (I will share one discovery, if I may digress: my experiment with postponing the drinking until after the picking made both the picking and the drinking more fun, same as the last two times I tried it. I’m thinking of making this standard practice.) Anyway, what a weekend. For a little while there I never wanted to go home.

On Sunday when it did get to be time to go home, there was track work in the Central Valley, so we got on a double-decker Amtrak bus that took us to Fresno, where the train was waiting. The bus had comfy seats and wifi: nothing like the old-fashioned Greyhound ride I’d been expecting. But it was a bus not a train, so there wasn’t really room to get out the instruments.

When the train had been under way for a while, Peter started picking and the rest of us joined in one by one. This was a different kind of train car, without the extra-roomy downstairs area, so we just sat around a table in the regular seats. It occurred to us that a train car is long enough that you could have a jam going at each end without either one bothering the other much.

At Richmond, the conductor (not the same one as on the Bakersfield-bound leg) stood on the platform and thanked us for the music as we stepped down off the train. Ron and and I took the BART commuter train back into town. Walking into my house, I didn’t feel any more tired from the trip than if I’d spent the whole time in my living room. On the contrary: I’d managed to squeeze one more good solid jam out of an already spectacular weekend. I was energized and itching for the next one.

Moral of the story: hard to see how our train experiment could have worked out any better. Next January we’re bringing a couple dozen more people along! If you’re in the northern half of the state and want to get in on the fun, get in touch with me at [email protected] (or friend me on Facebook), and sometime in the fall we’ll get the organizing under way for our rolling bluegrass mini-festival.

Read about: