Five years ago, Laura Gibson released a record called Empire Builder that, quite reasonably, had a song on it called “Empire Builder.” If you’re not familiar, Gibson is a songwriter and musician from Portland. She has the distinction of being the singer whose quiet voice single-handedly inspired the creation of the popular NPR Tiny Desk Concert series. She’s also made five wonderful records, each better than the last. That, alone, makes her remarkable. Then, two years ago, Shane Leonard put out an album called Strange Forms that also had a song called “Empire Builder.” Leonard is a singer/songwriter from Eau Claire, Wisconsin who has put out several great records, including two under the name Kalispell. He’s best known as a multi-instrumentalist who has recorded and toured with Field Report, J.E. Sunde, Anna Tivel, Damien Jurado, Mipso, and others.
The Empire Builder is a train. Specifically, it’s the Amtrak line that goes from the Pacific Northwest to Chicago. This makes it particularly convenient for traveling musicians—particularly ones based in Portland (I’ve begun to wonder whether writing a song about the Empire Builder has become a right of passage for Portland musicians). One evening, out of idle curiosity, I put “Empire Builder” into the search field of a popular streaming service and found there were twenty-one songs that shared the title, none of them covers! The experience of riding the Empire Builder seems to demand a response from songwriters (a similar search for the Chicago Zephyr yielded nothing). While each song is unique, they do tend to touch base with some common themes. We share a culture and train travel is like living in a metaphor.
So here’s my first listicle: my personal top ten songs named for the Empire Builder. The competition was fierce, particularly towards the top of this list. As you’ll see, these are some great songs.
10. Mike Munson, “Empire Builder” (2013)
Minnesota musician Mike Munson’s song, “Empire Builder,” is a blues that takes some artistic license with geography. Chicago is the eastern terminus of the Empire Builder, so you can’t both be going to Chicago and westward bound. Maybe I’m too literal-minded, but this took me straight out of the song and had me googling the Amtrak map. Aside from this, the lyric leans a bit heavily on traditional imagery for my taste. So how did Munson earn his spot on the top ten? He gives a great performance. He sings really well and his electrified country blues guitar playing is virtuosic, especially on his most recent record, Let Some Light In.
9. Pet Parade, “Empire Builder” (2013)
Pet Parade are, or were, a duo that released three albums in the 2010s. There is not a lot of information about them online and their band name is a SEO nightmare. But since nothing posted is more recent than 2018, I assume they’re defunct. Their song is the most harrowing, recounting an episode in which the train hits a truck just outside the Wisconsin border. Up to that point, the songwriter’s trip home for the holidays had been idyllic, including an impromptu party (with banjo!) in the smoking car. The chorus of the song has the repeated lyric, “And it’s a winter song. I like the winters long,” which I can relate to as a lifelong Wisconsinite. The music is straightforward and charming.
8. Ed & the Red Reds, “Empire Builder” (2010)
Ed Thanhouser is a Portland-based singer/songwriter who has released a couple of records and an EP with his band, the Red Reds. Ed’s song begins as a straightforward description of the experience of riding the Empire Builder set against a backdrop of Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan era-style fingerpicking. But then it makes a sudden turn into the Garden of Eden and a rumination on sin and guilt in a romantic relationship. This felt very honest and real to me. I’ve found that watching the landscape roll by, particularly when alone, often leads to excavating past relationships and holding memories up to the light.
7. The Dead Tongues, “Empire Builder” (2016)
The Dead Tongues is a project of Ryan Gustafson, a singer/songwriter and producer. Though he has a web presence and all the requisite social media, I couldn’t learn much about him. I was happy to see that The Dead Tongues are a going concern and just finished a tour. Gustafson’s take on the Empire Builder, performed in a county blues style, has a driving rhythm that’s meant to be suggestive of rail travel. The song is a rumination on love and mortality set against a western landscape and it works, even if some of the imagery is clichéd.
6. The Cabin Project, “Empire Builder” (2013)
The Cabin Project is an indie rock band based in Portland, Oregon. Their use of the Empire Builder is more playful. There is a train that can be caught, but the lyric also makes use of idea of ‘building an empire,’ to describe the shared geography of romantic love. And that’s a beautiful idea. The song is beautifully arranged with standard rock band instrumentation, horns, and even orchestral percussion.
5. Shane Leonard, “Empire Builder” (2013)
Like many songs called, “Empire Builder,” (I’m something of an expert) Shane Leonard’s opens with a narrator staring out the window of the eponymous train. But it quickly eschews the obvious with a wonderful simile comparing a disappearing bird to throwing lyrics away when “the premise doesn’t land.” To me this captures the state of mind of traveling solo perfectly. From there the train becomes a metaphor for his romantic relationship. The verses are full of personal specificities and like the most successful songs of the nanogenre, Leonard is skillful in pulling a range of meaning from the experience.
4. Typhoon, “Empire Builder” (2020)
Typhoon’s version is the most recent. It deserves its spot at number 4 for the image of North Dakota metastasizing alone. It definitely feels like the most ‘Trump era’ of the songs, with references to the apocalypse, conversations with conspiracists, anger, allusions to environmental unsustainability, and just a little existentialist dread. It’s pretty great. I hadn’t heard of Typhoon prior to this, but they are a large band—somewhat in the vein of Arcade Fire or Beirut. And damn, it’s satisfying to hear all of the instrumental textures in this recording. The arrival of the strings, the dynamics, the chanted vocals, etc. “Empire Builder” is on their most recent album Sympathetic Magic, which has become one of my favorites of 2021.
3. Tom Brosseau, “Empire Builder” & “Goodbye Empire Builder” (2014)
One of my favorite guitarists and midwestern musicians, Tom Brosseau, presents us with something of a song suite, an instrumental called “Empire Builder” and a song, “Goodbye Empire Builder.” The first is plaintive and evokes a contemplative and poignant state of mind—perhaps of someone staring out the window of the Empire Builder. The second is a song about the dissolution of a romance. The train first appears in the background, only later is it implied that the narrator’s lover, perhaps, has left aboard it. Brosseau really should be on postage stamps.
2. Mason Jennings, “Empire Builder” (2013)
Mason Jenning’s “Empire Builder” alludes to the romanticism with which we view trains and “the West” in America, casting himself as a railroad worker swinging his hammer and laying the track for a fulfilling romance. The music is folky with plenty of swing. Listening to all of these songs has given me an appreciation for how songwriters work with and against cliché and I think this is the best example of that.
1. Laura Gibson, “Empire Builder” (2016)
Which brings us to Laura Gibson‘s song, “Empire Builder.” For me, this is the original, the one against which the others are measured. It avoids direct references to trains, both lyrically and musically. Instead it evokes the liminality of being on a train. You’re neither at your point of departure or arrival, in fact you’re at no fixed point at all. “So hurry up and lose me, hurry up and find me, again.” “We are not alone and we are more alone than we’ve ever been.” The relationship becomes landscape: “Since I first stepped across your borders, Since I crawled into your skin.” Eventually, the literal journey reveals itself, the lumber mills, the coal mines, and the lonely pines. I hope that it worked out! Gibson’s voice always compels me with her precise images and language. Her music keeps on becoming more inventive too. It’s been more than three years since her last record. Each time she releases one I worry that it will be her last, she called it quits once before.
Which begs the question: “Which is your least favorite song called ‘Empire Builder?’
Urge Overkill, “Empire Builder” (1990)
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