The Story Behind the Song – Old Steel Train

Song: Old Steel Train

Album: 12 Bars

Lyrics: Chris Holm

Music: The Fattenin’ Frogs

Chris says – I began writing Old Steel Train back in September 2011 while I was spending a long weekend up at my parents’ place in Northern Minnesota. I was attempting to write an up-tempo acoustic slide guitar song with held out hollered lines like Charlie Parr’s Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down. I recorded a rough demo and then put it aside for probably six months. When we started writing songs again for the new album, I went back through my old recordings and started re-working that idea. This time, I decided to take more of a Johnny Cash storytelling approach. I took the initial spark for the lyrics from remembering visits to the Duluth Depot museum as a kid, seeing all the old trains there. The story arc was also influenced by the fact that all the railroad tracks in my hometown had been removed and trains no longer go through town. I then put myself in the perspective of a train looking at the world as if it were an older person forced into retirement. How would a train feel about being stuck in a museum while the railroad tracks are being torn up and trucks are taking over its job? Originally the story was about a Southern train between San Antonio and New Orleans, mainly just because as I was improvising lyrics while composing them, that’s the two cities that popped in my mind. With the more story based lyrics starting to take shape, I decided to take the music in a more country leaning direction. I slowed the tempo and added the cuts to the verses, but I put in the bridge / outro sections which were truer to the original idea of the song.

At this point I brought the song to the band. This song is one of the rare occasions I brought an almost completed song to the band – we did almost no restructuring of it. Berek originally played guitar on it but after we played it live one time that way we decided to try having him play some honky tonk piano on it and that stuck. The Lily Pads added in “woo woo” backing vocals to mimic a train whistle. Around this point, I decided I really wanted this song to be more relevant to my surroundings and the influences that caused me to write it. Through a couple iterations of rewrites and a dropped verse, I changed the story to be about an ore hauling train on the Minnesota Iron Range. When we recorded the song in the studio, I had Paul and Berek add back in some of Berek’s original guitar ideas, along with Paul throwing down some country style lead guitar picking. I feel like the end result captures the spirit of what I was attempting to do very well.

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