Songwriter’s Back Story – Herb Pedersen

Herb Pedersen - photo by David PalmerThis month’s Songwriter’s Back Story features the song Old Train, written by Herb Pedersen and the late, Nikki Pedersen (plus as a bonus, Wait A Minute, also by Herb). It was recorded first by The Seldom Scene in 1973 as the title track on the album Old Train on Rebel Records, and then again by Tony Rice in 1979 as the blistering kick off song on his Manzanita LP for Rounder.

The American railroad has a long history that began even before President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill that Congress had authorized for funds to begin construction of the transcontinental railroad. That was in 1863, and the project was completed in 1869. Prior to this, the northern railways were credited in part for giving the union army a leg up on their civil war victory as northern railways were more intact, allowing union soldiers to travel more freely and in large groups. After the civil war, displaced civil war vets found employment building lines and laying timber from coast to coast. A substantial, remarkable part of history and the American story.

Bluegrass music fans and really most Americans have a real and passionate romance and fascination with trains. The sound of their mournful whistle is hard to ignore and the mystery of the destination can bring out the wanderlust and yearning for travel in even the most steadfast couch potato.

I caught up with Herb Pedersen by phone from his home in California to talk about his experience with trains, the inspiration for the song, and his writing process.

Herb, how were you inspired to write, Old Train?

Herb Pedersen“It was just an idea I had about the old Sacramento-Northern line that runs up the Northern California Railroad line. I was just thinking about that because my uncle Lee was a chief of police in Dunsmuir, CA up there by Mt. Shasta. As a kid, I would go up there to visit with my parents to see him. The trains would be close to his home. So I would sit and watch them for hours. So I always had a fascination for trains. And so I got the idea for the song. The co-author was my late ex-wife, Nikki Pederson. She had some input on the direction. She and I did the lyrics together and them I put the melody to it. I played around on the guitar with a chord progression that’s how I came up with it. That’s how I write. It’s not anything that’s very cut and dry. I just have to go with what hits me in the head at the time. And if I’m lucky enough to be around an instrument when I get an idea, I can put together a chord change thing and go from there”.

Of course I had to ask if Herb had a Lionel train as a boy.

“No, I had an American Flyer. It wasn’t a big set but plenty for me and I had a blast with it.”  Santa left this on Christmas morning for Herb when he was 8 years old.

Old Train

Old Train, I can hear your whistle blow
And I want to be jumping on again
Old Train, I’ve been everywhere you go
And I know what lies beyond each bend

Old Train, each time you pass
You’re older than the last
And it seems I’m too old for running
I hear your rusty wheels grate against the rails
They cry with every mile
And I think I’ll stay awhile

Old Train, I grow weary at the miles
And I miss the freedom that was mine
Old Train, just to think about those times
I’ll smile when you’re highballing by

Old Train, each time you pass
You’re older than the last
And It seems I’m too old for running
I hear your rusty wheels grate against the rails
They cry with every mile
And I think I’ll stay awhile

Here’s Herb singing the song with The John Jorgensen Bluegrass Band.


And it seems the writing process can be like water from a mountain stream. When it flows prolific, you just let it go.


“Same situation with Wait A Minute. (Written in the same week as Old Train.) Although that stemmed from me coming off the road from a long tour, then within a week I got a call from another guy who wanted me to go out for another 9 weeks.”

Most touring musicians understand how time away from home can be a source of discontent for even the most understanding spouse left behind. The flip side of that particular heated discussion was turned into a timeless love song that Herb penned alone. Wait A Minute was the result and also appears on the Seldom Scene Old Train album.

Grammy nominated performing duo, Peter Cooper and Eric Brace recorded a sweet rendition of Wait A Minute that is also important to note from their Master Session record on the Red Beet label. It also features the late, Mike Auldridge, an original Seldom Scene alum and Dobro master.

I asked Herb how these 2 songs got into the hands of The Seldom Scene.

“John Duffy called me and asked if I had anything, and I said I have a couple of ideas here that you might like. So I put them on a cassette… we all remember cassettes. I sent them down to John and he listened to them and wanted to do both of them.”

Original lead singer for the group, John Starling had this to say: “I got a demo from Herb while in L.A. a long time ago with both Old Train and Wait a Minute on it – a priceless time in my life. I was out there for a medical meeting – right brain ruled.” John was and is a full time physician as well as bluegrass super star.

Tom Gray, legendary bassist from the group contributed this about Herbs 2 works: “John Starling selected two songs from Herb for that album – Old Train and Wait a Minute. They were among the best received songs the Scene ever did.”

For a songwriter, there can hardly be a greater honor than to have a revered artist such as Seldom Scene record something you have authored. So lightning strikes twice for Pedersen, and Tony Rice records, Old Train for his Manzanita album. I asked Herb how this came about.

“He heard the Scene’s version then I got a call from David Grisman who was involved in the production of that album. He said, ‘Hey man, did you write Old Train?’ And I said, ‘yeah.’ ‘OK, well Tony wants to cut it.’ GREAT! So that was the last I heard of that and the next thing I know the album came out and there is was.”

Every writer has their own way and process. Herb describes and compares his creative process in this way:

“I’m not fastidious about every word and every line as a lot of writers are. Don Henley and Glen Frey wrote some amazing lyrics for the Eagles. Don told me one time they argued about an ‘and’ and a ‘but’ for a couple of weeks. I don’t dwell on it that much. I’m more of a ‘feel’ writer. I try to get the story out as quickly as I can.”

Indeed Herb gets the story out and has created a memorable soundtrack for many folks. He has enjoyed a successful solo artist career as well as serving as a founding member of,The Desert Rose Band from 1985 to 1994. The band’s core members were Chris Hillman, John Jorgenson and Herb. They released several albums and hit singles for MCA/Curb to mainstream country radio and enjoyed much success.

The John Jorgensen Bluegrass BandThe list of artists Herb has backed as a musician and singer is truly a who’s who of American pop music. From John Denver to Emmy Lou Harris to Linda Ronstadt, and the list goes on. Herb presently lives with his wife, Libby, in Woodland Hills, CA right at the mouth of Topanga Canyon. These days he spends a lot of his time writing for movie soundtracks and TV spots, and is producing 2 new artists’ projects. He is still very active touring with The John Jorgenson Band featuring John Jorgenson, John Randall and Mark Fain. Herb was delighted to just recently be asked to join Tom Petty and his band, Mudcrutch for their upcoming tour.

Hey Herb, well it seems…we’ll smile when you’re high balling by.

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About the Author

Irene Kelley

Irene Kelley’s signature mix of Bluegrass, Country and Americana appeals to music lovers across all genres. A native of Latrobe, PA, Irene Kelley discovered her flair for songwriting as a teenager and soon found her way to Nashville, TN where her songs were quickly noticed and recorded by Carl Jackson, Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White. While recording an album for MCA and independently releasing 3 more critically acclaimed records and touring worldwide. Her new bluegrass album, These Hills was released on Mountain Fever Records in May of 2016 to critical acclaim. Irene raised two daughters and scored cuts with Alan Jackson, Trisha Yearwood, Loretta Lynn, Pat Green, Brother Phelps, Rhonda Vincent, Claire Lynch, Darrell Scott, The Whites, the Osborne Brothers and others.