Tuesday, March 09, 2010

John Paul Wright profile: All Aboard for Funtime

An average day working on the railroad goes something like this for John Paul Wright: “The caller calls and you have to be there in two hours. I run the train for eight to 12 hours and go to the hotel. My away-from-home terminal is in Nashville. You might stay in the hotel 12 hours or 24. I work on call, no shift. Long hours being away from home. Lonesome. Johnny Cash said his early music sounded like a train. I know why.”

Wright, a resident of Middletown, was raised in a musical family in Germantown. He began playing guitar while attending the Brown School. He has also studied African drumming for 20 years.

“Hub Engineer” is a song on Wright's first album, Music for Modern Railroaders. It begins with a recording sampled from the CSX phone system. “When you become a hub engineer, you call that number to get that automated crew caller bot. A hub engineer is one that is qualified to run on all lines running out of Louisville. I though it would be funny to add that at the beginning because you live with your phone being on call seven days a week, 24 hours a day.”

Wright wrote “Hub Engineer” as a joke for his colleagues. “Modern railroaders love telling stories, stories about crazy stuff they have done on the railroad. That is my favorite part of my job. The last of the L&N employees are fast retiring. There is a lot of history from the L&N Railroad. My run is the Louisville to Nashville mainline. We are the modern railroaders directly related to Casey Jones, John Henry and the many men and women who built this country.”

Before he went to work on the railroads, he worked as the music director for Pneuma, an after-school arts group. He worked for a while at the late, beloved Twice Told Books in the Highlands, alongside artist and songwriter Sean Garrison. Today Garrison says of Wright, “He has the true voice.”

Joe Manning is a singer/songwriter with a large following and an equally large debt to Wright's influence. “J.P. was the first one to introduce me to bluegrass, and by extension to country music, so I blame him for a lot of the subsequent terrible choices I've made as an adult. He's also a great singer and songwriter who knows the value of experience in storytelling. Look at all the trouble he went to just to write some authentic train songs.”

Elaborating on the connections between music and railroading, Wright said, “A GE Dash-8 locomotive vibrates in a 6/8 pattern, you can stuff paper into the horns and create great tones. The rail sings when you go around a sharp turn. There are thousands of songs about the railroad. Some of the first American labor unions were railroad; Joe Hill and other musicians, Woody Guthrie, sang about union struggle.”

Wright plays most often for his wife and son, but is planning to record a new record this summer. He will warm up by performing at the Railroad Workers United's Labor Notes convention in April in Detroit.

Folk singer John Gage hosts Kentucky Homefront on WFPK-FM. He said, “I've known John most of his life. He's always been musical, and it's been wonderful to see him grow as an artist. He's continuing a tradition of American folk music, singing songs about the railroad. And they're great songs.”

As the secretary treasurer for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers Local 78, “unions and corporate greed are on my mind more and more,” said Wright. “I am focusing on broader issues.”

For more information, please visit http://www.myspace.com/sd402 and http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/jpwright

photo by John Rott

c. 2010 Velocity Weekly

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