The Porter Draw is a train wreck. That is, it’s Exit 106 on I-25 just north of Pueblo, Colo.—named after a nearby dry arroyo. On the night of Aug. 7, 1904, a thunderstorm erupted and flood waters rushed down the arroyo, sweeping away a rickety bridge that connected a country road. The resulting debris damaged the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad bridge 300 yards downstream. Around 8:20 p.m. the No. 11 Denver, Kansas City and St. Louis Express passed over it, carrying scores of passengers, many who were traveling to the World’s Fair in St. Louis. All but three cars fell into the water in what is know as the Eden wreck (for a station in a nearby town of the same name, now absorbed into Pueblo). Ninety-seven people perished while 14 remained missing, making the railroad accident one of the most deadly in U.S. history.
Not that singer/guitarist Russell James Pyle knew about any of this when he was driving down I-25 several years ago. After seeing the exit sign he was compelled to call bandmate Joshua Gingerich (vocals, guitar, mandolin, harmonica) and emphatically suggest that the then-duo’s name be The Porter Draw. In fact, it wasn’t until after the band released its debut album Trouble that it learned about the macabre tragedy attached to the name. Eerily, that album conveys a fascination with railroads, bearing the image of a locomotive and commencing with a train song.
Now a five-piece, The Porter Draw explains the coincidence over drinks at a practice space on Fourth Street in Albuquerque’s Barelas neighborhood. It’s a thumb pick’s throw from the railroad. The storefront apartment, which doubles as banjo player Ben Wood’s living quarters, is sandwiched between Juanita’s Comida Mexicana and MEL Music & Records (which sells mostly mariachi and Tejano). “It’s a really great situation,” says Wood. “I don’t have any residential neighbors, so we can play at any point.”
At its first show back in 2007, the new band was shocked when people lined up outside of a Downtown bar to see them. Its members had no previous connection to the local music scene. The band became part of a small but prolific Americana movement that has bubbled up in Albuquerque during the past five years. Marked by an unusual amount of camaraderie, the handful of bands within it are friends who are mutually dedicated to making music in and for this town. “You can get heard here, and you can get feedback really quickly,” says Wood. “Albuquerque’s awesome.”
Pegged as a bluegrass band by people who see a banjo and make the association, The Porter Draw is actually more of a country and Western outfit. Alt.country, or "psychograss" as its members sometimes call it, are apt descriptors too. It's a sound that's pulled from a variety of American folk traditions—from the mountains of Pennsylvania to the dusty campfires of the Old West—but is also inflected with punk rock notions. Pyle and Gingerich harmonize in a twangy, high lonesome fashion, while busy picking creates layers of texture and a sense of movement.
Two years ago the band added drums and electric bass, provided, respectively, by stalwarts Joey Gonzales and Dandee Fleming (Lousy Robot, The Dirty Novels). Country and rockabilly rhythms emerged in the music and gave it locomotion—The Porter Draw at times even sounds like a train. This is all wrapped up with devastating lyricism dealing with coarse human matters like hard labor, rambling, drinking and sinning.
The music begs you to have fun. “We’re really lucky, actually—people come out to our shows no matter where we play or when we play. I’m really surprised by that,” says Gonzales. The Porter Draw is one of Albuquerque’s most productive acts, playing long stretches at bars, growers’ markets, libraries, weddings and festivals throughout the Southwest. It's clear that the fellers enjoy the grind, though—you're having fun because they're having more fun.
The group’s second album, California Widow, was released this week. Captured by Bill Palmer at Frogville Studios in Santa Fe, the 10-song LP is a document of the band’s last two, sonically transformative years. “If you’re a band and looking for a great studio, go up to Frogville,” says Pyle. “That place is amazing.” The album's production value is not only professional-grade, it sounds true to the band's live performances. Pretty ballads and lively ditties are interwoven like lace on a Victorian mourning veil. The album is aesthetically beautiful as well. Local artist and fellow Americana musician Jessica Billey provided the ornate and somber artwork. The recording is a wonderful contribution to this city’s Americana sound.
“I believe in Albuquerque’s music scene," says Pyle. "I believe in The Porter Draw—and all of these other great bands that are here—staying with Albuquerque and providing this community with amazing music.” Although the band sings about skipping town, its roots are firmly planted. This weekend’s California Widow album release party is a fine time to admire their gnarled and earthy majesty.