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Fiddler catches ride to Vail with Great American Taxi

Stewart Oksenhorn
Vail, CO Colorado
Special ot the Vail DailyTim Carbone, a fiddler with Railroad Earth, will join Great American Taxi at Vail's Sandbar Friday night
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VAIL, Colorado – Tim Carbone, who plays with Great American Taxi in Vail Friday, is in some danger of being pigeonholed as a certain kind of fiddler, at least in Aspen. In September, the 53-year-old Pennsylvania musician played a sold-out Belly Up show as a member of Railroad Earth, a band that crosses bluegrass and acoustic rock. Tonight Carbone is featured as a guest player with Great American Taxi, the Colorado country-rock band headed by Vince Herman, best known as the frontman of Leftover Salmon.

These are hardly bad career affiliations. Railroad Earth has been on a slow but steady climb since pulling out of the station – actually, an impromptu jam session in rural northwestern New Jersey – in 2001. Their Belly Up gig left dozens stranded without tickets, and they have made appearances at Bonnaroo, Rothbury and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Great American Taxi, formed four years ago, is likewise on an uphill course. They are set to release the album “Reckless Habits,” an ambitious mix of funk, gospel, rock and country produced by Carbone, early next year.

But for 40 years, Carbone has yearned to break free of stylistic bonds. Into his early teens he was strictly a classical player, and even though his father was a blues fanatic and his mother had played trombone in dance bands, Carbone was unaware that his violin could be used to do something other than play music that was composed down to the note, most of it written centuries ago.

Carbone’s ignorance came to an end when, at the age of 13, he came upon an LP by Sugarcane Harris. The out-of-focus photograph of Harris caught his eye, and the music he heard – blues, played on the violin – changed his life.

“I learned all the licks off that record and realized there was something more going on there with the instrument, that I could do something other than play classical music,” said Carbone, who grew up on the eastern end of Long Island and began playing music in the public schools there.

That opened the heavens, and the flood of musical styles poured over Carbone. Within a year he had joined a blues band.

In 1978, he joined the Blue Sparks From Hell. The New Jersey band had been formed a year earlier as a Nitty Gritty Dirt Band-type outfit – bluegrass fortified by a drum kit. When the Blue Sparks from Hell burned out, Carbone and his Blue Sparks mate Andy Goessling launched Kings in Disguise. The group focused on Carbone’s original music, though for two years it also served as the backing band for Rick Danko, the bassist from The Band.

The Kings’ run lasted a full decade, a period when Carbone took on such off-stage but music-related jobs as DJ-ing on a public radio station; working in a record store; producing and engineering recording projects; and analyzing sound for a high-end home speaker company.

In early 2001, Carbone and Goessling were part of an acoustic jam session led by Todd Sheaffer, who had been the leader of a New Jersey roots-rock group, From Good Homes. The participants recognized right away that the session should carry over into something more formal; three weeks later, Carbone, Goessling and Sheaffer, along with mandolinist John Skehan, drummer Carey Harmon and bassist Dave Van Dollen, made a demo recording under the name Railroad Earth. Five albums later, Railroad Earth has become a solid concert draw.

Carbone has also played dates here and there with Vince Herman’s post-Leftover Salmon band, Great American Taxi, for several years. Carbone calls the group “a classic country-rock honky tonk band,” and commends it for having a diversity of songwriters who come from differing backgrounds. He likens “Cold Lonely Town,” written by keyboardist Chad Staehly, to the Beatles “A Day in the Life,” while he calls Herman “a singularity.”

Carbone has picked up, somewhat late in life, a reputation as a bluegrass-style fiddler. But he says he still sees more music over the horizon. He’d like to go back to his beginnings, and start composing and recording classical violin music.

“I’m always learning something new,” Carbone said. “Every time I play I gain more knowledge.”


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