Steel Rails leaves the station for Louisa Branscomb

Molly Tuttle, Louisa Branscomb, Sierra Hull, and Missy Raines

Forty-eight years ago, chasing sunshine ’round the bend, Louisa Brancomb penned Steel Rails; twenty-nine years ago, winding through the trees, like a ribbon in the wind, Alison Krauss recorded it. Not knowing what lies down the track, Steel Rails was SPBGMA’s Song of the Year the following year (1991). Now, looking out ahead, its composer is releasing her commemorative re-visioning of the song, and her mind is doing anything but looking back. This landmark single heralds her upcoming album, her 12th, due this summer on Compass Records.

Branscomb explained, “It is a tribute to Alison Krauss and a way of bringing people together in bluegrass around one common bond. The song, with her magic touch, enlightened me on how songs can reach people, and how music is a universal language. Musicians have shared personal experiences about growing up listening to or performing Steel Rails. Now great artists themselves, I decided to gather them together and turn them loose to create their own portrayal of my song. It’s coming full circle.”

Chris Jones referred to the railroad anthem as “the song that brought a whole generation into bluegrass.” The recording features a powerhouse ensemble of singers and instrumentalists that include: Tina Adair, Dale Ann Bradley, Alison Brown, Becky Buller, Stuart Duncan, Jenni Lyn Gardner, Steve Gulley, Sierra Hull, Kimber Ludiker, Bryan McDowell, Missy Raines, Molly Tuttle, Jeanette Williams, and Celia Woodsmith, as well as Branscomb.

Hull shared her enthusiasm… “Steel Rails was one of my favorite songs to sing as a girl. I fell in love with the song and the imagery it instantly brings to mind. To be a part of this project with Louisa all these years later is such an honor.”

The composer stressed, “I was humbled that these amazing artists were willing to be a part of this amazing collaboration. This is a very different version, a different vision. I also owe a debt of gratitude to Missy Raines, my co-producer, and engineer Ben Surratt.” 

“Louisa writes songs that beckon you, like a warm comfy room that you want to linger in. She invites us to experience rural living, love, and the magic of life through fresh eyes, but the eyes of wisdom. I consider it a great honor to get to work with her,” added Raines.

Branscomb has been inducted into the Atlanta Music Hall of Fame and the Alabama Bluegrass Hall of Fame, garnered the Georgia Lifetime Achievement Award, earned two IBMA Recorded Event of the Year Awards, and IBMA’s Song of the Year in 2014 with Claire Lynch. In 2017, she received the coveted IBMA’s Distinguished Achievement Award for her contributions to the genre. 

Mentoring countless musicians and songwriters over the years, Branscomb influenced Becky Buller, one of the recording’s singers. She reflected, “The bewitching combination of Louisa Branscomb’s writing and Alison Krauss’ performance turned Steel Rails into a jam standard, baptizing both women with bluegrass immortality. It’s definitely one of the songs that taught me how to write. With that in mind, I’m honored and blessed beyond measure that Louisa invited me to collaborate on Steel Rails and to play and sing on this lovely album.”

A lifetime of riding and listening to trains rumble by, from her birthplace in upstate New York to the Blue Ridge farm where she now resides, has given Branscomb some of the resilience and fortitude many ascribe to her life and work. Trains are her mentors, conveying something about the unfolding of the soul in song and life.  

“We are always moving forward, being carried along by destiny. I try to tune in, be aware, feel the rhythm of the rails within. It’s the same for songwriting as for life. I try to let myself hear the rhythm of what is most true and genuine to say, then maybe the song will be art. Then, if we are lucky, it will move on down the line to reach others and bring people together on their journey,” concluded Branscomb as she listens for the next train to call her along that never ending double line.

Steel Rails is available on Spotify, or for download from Compass Records, and to radio programmers at AirPlay Direct. 

Share this:

About the Author

Sandy Hatley

Sandy Chrisco Hatley is a free lance writer for several NC newspapers and Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. As a teenager, she picked banjo with an all girl band called the Happy Hollow String Band. Today, she plays dobro with her husband's band, the Hatley Family.