SARATOGA SPRINGS-How does a self-proclaimed city boy like Jim Gaudet get himself into bluegrass?
“Boy, that’s an age-old question,” he said as he chuckled.
For starters, it’s not quite bluegrass that he and The Railroad Boys play. It has its similarities. The setup on stage resembles that of a bluegrass band. Gaudet, blessed with the gift of gab, can spin a yarn behind the mic.
Jim Gaudet and the Railroad Boys sets up like a traditional bluegrass band: As it reads on their website, Gaudet strums the guitar while Sten Isachsen plays mandolin, Bobby Ristau is on the stand-up bass, and Sara Milonovich and Tucket Callander both play the fiddle. But that’s about where the comparisons end.
“The bluegrass world has welcomed us with open arms,” Gaudet said, adding that bluegrass is a love of his. However, with the band’s latest album, he wants to solidify the fact that what they play is hillbilly rock ‘n’ roll. “But I feel almost like an imposter in some ways, because we’re not a traditional bluegrass band.”
Listen to “Johnny Come Lately,” off the group’s 2016 release “When It Rains.” From someone who foolheartedly told bluegrass legend Del McCoury that he couldn’t appreciate the music coming from anywhere north of the Mason-Dixon line, I can at least agree that Gaudet doesn’t play bluegrass — I just don’t know how to articulate it, okay. But that’s something novice audience members can determine for themselves by seeing them play Caffé Lena on Saturday, March 5, at 8 p.m.
Lena Spencer’s coffeehouse in Saratoga Springs is a familiar room for the singer-songwriter. His life as a performer started on her stage during an open mic night more than 30 years ago. Sometime after performing a cover of Lefty Frizzell’s “Long Black Veil,” the late owner encouraged him to keep working on his own music.
“Initially, I was scared to death of her,” he said. “As wonderful, warm and engaging as she could be, she could also be tough, too. That’s one of the reasons why I started to write. One of my greatest goals was to perform at Lena’s.”
He started playing guitar while attending school in the late 60s at the University of New England in Maine, pursuing a degree in both sociology and psychology. He befriended a musician who taught him a few chords. From there, he returned home, picked up a mandolin and together with Marty DiGuiseppe, Kevin Furlong and Roger Weiss they formed Lost Country Rounders. They, without an argument, played bluegrass. On his blog, Weiss wrote how they’d play weekly at Reactionary Mary’s before the group disbanded in the late 70s.
Gaudet played around as a solo act throughout the next decade. His songwriting drew inspiration from John Gorka. Gaudet said he was just one of a handful of people who took in Gorka’s performance at Caffé Lena one evening. The Jersey native has since been tied with several prominent artists, released more than a dozen albums, and was tasked by Rolling Stone magazine for leading the New Folk Movement in 1991.
Gaudet was captivated by Gorka’s ability to spin a beautiful tale from what may otherwise be mundane. He contacted Gorka’s booking agency to invite him back for a concert. After he returned, Gorka stayed a few nights with Gaudet and his wife at their home.
“He had some good advice for me,” he said. “Of course, I can’t think of the exact wisdom as we speak. What I loved about him mostly — certainly his voice — but, in his writing, he would write about anything. There were no rules. They weren’t all love songs, and if they were love songs, they were taken in very different angles.”
Gaudet’s journey into hillbilly rock ‘n’ roll started once he recorded a record with Isachsen and Ristau in 2008. It was a comeback of sorts for Gaudet, who after signing a deal with 1-800 Prime CD in the early 90s, sold his guitars to help raise his two young children. The obligation to perform every weekend to support the CD was “overwhelming,” he said. It wasn’t a move he regrets. The early pairing with Isachesen and Ristau would roll into The Railroad Boys shortly after their first record.
Now retired from a career working for the state, Gaudet is regularly performing with The Railroad Boys. Their name has headlined at concert series throughout the region, including Old Songs in Voorheesville and Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in Oak Hill.
In January, he announced his intent to revisit his older work. In an interview with WEXT’s Chris Wienk, he shared a collaboration with Blotto’s Greg Haymes. Haymes, who died in 2019, played harmonica over a track that tells the story of a mysterious person who pays tribute to Edgar Allen Poe on his birthday. Gaudet plans to rerelease music that coincides with a theme. In March, he will revisit one of his earlier songs, “The Irish Boys.”
This week, he and the band return to Caffé Lena, which he said is as “magic as ever.”
“I still envision the old stage and the old set up,” he said. “Sarah Craig, I can’t say enough wonderful things about her, boy. She took it upon herself and worked that whole thing and created a real miracle in keeping that venue alive.”