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American Idle

The Brakemen Bring The Folk Without The Freak

Sam Holden
BRAKE BEATS: (from left) Andy Stack, E.J. Shaull-Thompson, Caleb Stine, and Burke Sampson embrace the "Americana" tag for the music they make as The Brakemen.

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Caleb Stine and The Brakemen

Caleb Stine plays a solo show at Woodhall Wine Sellers in Parkton on July 15. Caleb Stine and the Brakemen play the Waterfront Hotel on July 19.

By Jim Breihan | Posted 7/12/2006

Caleb Stine is a tall, thin guy with a big, square beard who smiles quite often. He sits in the courtyard behind the Daily Grind in Fells Point, drinking tea and eating dried fruit out of a bag. He pauses the conversation, munches on some apricots, and gathers his thoughts. And then he talks really fast. "A brakeman is the guy who couples the cars on the train," Stine says. "I think as soon as you start talking about trains youíre alluding to a mythic America. Youíre instantly talking about the kind of America thatís in the songs weíre playing."

Stineís Brakemen are a four-piece band who make music using the simple--or elemental, depending on your point of view--materials of acoustic and electric guitars, drums, and an upright bass. Stine calls their music "Americana," explaining that for him the loaded term "encompasses the fact that itís not just country, thereís a lot of folk elements and a lot of early rock íní roll elements, but itís all centered around American themes and American ideas." Heís quick to draw a line in the sand between the Brakemen and a modern Nashville sound "so robotically, diabolically perfect in its song structures," he says. "When I say Ďcountryí Iím thinking Johnny Cash, the Louvin Brothers, Hank Williams."

Stine met guitarist Burke Sampson at a fundraiser for a summer camp, appropriately enough around a campfire. Sampson cites Roy Nichols from Merle Haggardís band and Clarence White from the Byrds as his major influences, as well as Boston guitarist Duke Levine, who first introduced him to the dusty twang he draws on in the Brakemen. Bassist Andrew Stack also plays in experimental noise band Monarch, dark-edged folk group Noble Wake, and, along with the Brakemenís drummer E.J. Shaull-Thompson, indie-rocker Errant Strike. All the members are in their early 30s; Stack describes his early-20s stint at Bostonís Berklee College of Music as "a serious amount of musical masturbation. The Brakemen is pretty much on the opposite end of the spectrum."

"From early on I decided I wanted play music for people, not for other musicians," Stine says in sympathy.

The Brakemen self-released their first album, October 29th, in May, a cycle of songs chronicling long road trips and failed relationships in a very sentimental way. "A lot of ruminating about space and travel," Stine says. In "On Nebraska," Stine sings, "Thereís a road through your field/ And a sun on your horizon/ The girl who checked me into this cheap hotel/ Claims you havenít been treating her well/ Oh Nebraska, how little I know about you." Despite occasionally straying into some heavy-handed emotional territory, the music is warmly accessible, and even breezy at times--especially so on the standout "Diver Blues," which features polyrhythmic fingerpicking equal parts Nick Drake and Mississippi John Hurt.

October 29th sounds like the landscapes the songs evoke, dusty and wind-swept, similar to Beckís acoustic work stripped of its production gloss, as Stineís vocals trade melodies back and forth with the instruments. The entire album was recorded in the old Trinity Reformed Church in Hampden last Oct. 29--Stineís 29th birthday. "Part of the essence of the band was the live feeling of it, was it all happening at once," he says. "So we just wanted to . . . not do overdubs, not try to record a guitar part 100 times till you got it pristine."

But the album doesnít sound much like the upbeat shows the Brakemen put on regularly at the Waterfront Hotel in Fells Point. "We have to have enough music to play three and four hours, and we just decided to play songs that we really like, and those happen to be country and folk songs," Stine says of the bandís bar gigs, which frequently include covers of songs by Hank Williams, Townes Van Zandt, Elvis Presley, and Woody Guthrie. Honky-tonk music might not seem the most obvious choice for your average Fells Point crowd, and it isnít hard to tell the Brakemen regulars in the audience. But the goal at the Waterfront is to get everyone in on the call-and-response songs and doing some twirly-whirly dancing, whether theyíve ever owned a country album or not. The Brakemen like playing at the cover-free Waterfront because "itís hard to find a venue where everyone can come and see you play in Baltimore," Stine says.

The Stoop Storytelling Series at the Creative Alliance is worlds away from the raucousness of the bandís Waterfront shows. The entire audience is seated for one thing, politely watching the Brakemen play between spoken-word performers. But the band still seems totally at home here as Stine sings about "Driving for hours/ On some gorgeous highway that cuts through the mountains" and drinking at Dizzie Issieís. "One of the amazing things about the style we play [is] it communicates to kids, to old people, to any neighborhood in Baltimore, any class of people weíre playing for," Stine says. "People like it because itís real and itís honest."

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