Blackwater Railroad Company's “Rooster” is a roots-rock celebration

Article Contributed by Sarah J Frost | Published on Sunday, June 9, 2024

Blackwater Railroad Company has experienced many iterations since its inception more than a decade ago. The group first began as a community band in Seward, Alaska, a deep-water harbor, port city, and gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park. As members have come and gone, they've evolved from an Alaskana string band to a full-on American roots-rock outfit. The band's new album, A Lovely Place to Die, finds them poised on the precipice of their next chapter, and their next single, “Rooster,” is a prime example of why.

“'Rooster' is a tribute to the folks who celebrate and enjoy the life they have," the band says, "regardless of the bigger world outside them.”

“Rooster” features bass player Ben Sayers on lead vocals. The B3 organ on “Rooster” belongs to Steve Nelson, a notable figure in the Juneau and Alaskan music scenes for decades. In an incredibly apt exchange for use of the instrument, the band shoveled the mountain of snow that had piled up in front of his driveway.

Watch the video for “Rooster” on YouTube

Blackwater Railroad's sound teeters between country, rock, soul, and balladic folk. The recent addition of drums and saxophone gives A Lovely Place to Die a more soulful, old-school feeling than previous releases. Paired with folk-style songwriting, rock-inspired bass, and honky-tonk piano, they've created something more than the sum of its parts—an energetic, colorful, and dynamic time capsule of the moment they're in, one full of vibrant transformation.

“Being embedded in a transient place like Alaska, our lineup has changed, but with new members, we've gained new perspectives, talents, and sounds,” the band says.

Made up of Tyson T. Davis (acoustic guitar, lead vocals), Kyle Comeau (keyboards and vocals), Ben Sayers (bass guitar and vocals), Braden Rollins (tenor saxophone, additional vocals), and Will Balcao (drums), as well as frequent guest appearances by fiddle players Rachel DeTemple and Ryan McLaughlin, the band is well-versed in leaning into their strengths and playing into each other's.

The band worked with producer/engineer Justin Smith (Josh Fortenbery, Annie Bartholomew) to hone their sound on A Lovely Place to Die and capture the energy of their raucous live show, which showcases their singular Alaskan voice—grounded in storytelling and foot-stomping good times.

A Lovely Place to Die kicks off with “Raging Bull in the Barroom,” a fictional, Gold Rush-era tale the band calls a “classic Alaskan love story” featuring a barroom brawl over a love interest in a place where men outnumber women two to one.

“He came looking for riches and freedom and ended up broken in shackles,” they say of the song. “It's another highlight of the extremes that Alaska creates in those who choose to spend their lives here.”

“Clarity,” the first single released, chronicles the moment Davis, the band's primary songwriter, realized he wanted to marry his wife—during an otherwise inconsequential grocery store trip. “She started pulling boxes off the shelf and ran around the store with them on her feet,” he says. “I thought, in a moment of clarity, that we could keep each other entertained for a lifetime.”

“We're so proud of the harmonies on this song,” the band adds. “It's the result of hours and hours of rehearsal and preproduction, searching for little moments to make this song blossom into a fully realized 'aha moment' sort of love song.”

For “Rock and Roll Man,” producer Justin Smith loaded a vintage Rhodes piano onto the four-hour ferry from Gustavus, AK. Keyboardist Kyle Comeau created an iconic underpinning on the second verse that later expands into a robust addition to the track.

To further flesh out their sound on the album, the band also recruited members of the Muskeg Collective—a group made up of independently celebrated Juneau, AK musicians and songwriters Annie Bartholomew, Josh Fortenbery, Taylor Vidic, Erin Heist, and Andrew Heist. The group works together to highlight and celebrate the incredible songwriting community developing in Southeast Alaska.

On “Rock and Roll Man,” Vidic improvised haunting harmonies as the recording session was ending. “She did four or so takes of absolutely brilliant work and gave everyone in the room chills,” the band notes.

"Josh [Fortenbery] helped us organize the whole thing and lent us his beautiful Martin guitar; Andrew played all of the mandolin work you hear on the album. We hadn't intended for there to be any mandolin solos, but after hearing him, we immediately changed our minds. Annie and Erin both had key harmonies and background vocals on multiple songs.”

“Road to Make Believe” is a songwriting collaboration between Davis, Sayers, and Alaskan country songwriter Roland Roberts. It is the only song on the album with lead vocals from three of the band members. Davis, Sayers, and saxophonist Braden Rollins each feature on a verse and then join into a stop-time harmony for the last chorus.

“Many of the songs on this album touch on themes of extreme isolation, excess, ardent love, and the emotional swells of performing and getting in tune with the cycle of life here,” Davis says. “We have extremely beautiful summers and dark, cold winters.”

“That has, at times, stressed our relationships with loved ones, substances, and productivity,” he adds.

Ultimately, A Lovely Place to Die is intended to highlight the bright moments in life—in Alaska and beyond—but also meant to illuminate some of the long nights and hard times that everyone experiences.

“We write a lot about what we feel it is to be an Alaskan and what it is to seek out a life worth living, and finding a lovely place to die,” the band says. “Everybody has a story worth telling, and we want to create music that resonates with the highs and lows, the celebration and joy, but also the complexities.”