With songs that reflect a twangy, melancholy, country stride encased in a folksy, bluegrass rhythm, John Train, a Philadelphia quintet, holds to its own integrity and doesn't need to be loud and brassy in order to be heard. Picking its moniker from the legendary Phil Ochs' pseudonym from the '60s and '70s, the band began forming in 1995 when Jon Houlon (songwriter and vocalist) met Mike Brenner (dobro and guitar), who was playing for Low Road and Marah. The duo started playing gigs around Philadelphia and made their first cassette tape, All of Your Stories, early in 1996. While opening for Burn Witch Burn, the duo met Steve Demarest (bass) and Bill Fergusson (mandolin) who were playing for the Witch. The four joined talents and, while playing gigs, also recorded the group's second cassette with Joseph Payne, world-renowned classical organist, who was the father of a friend. In 1997, Jay Ansill (fiddle), formerly with Flying Fish, joined the group.
After consistently playing gigs in the Philadelphia area, John Train recorded it's first album, Angels Turned Thieves, with all songs written by Houlon. The Record Cellar label released the album in May 1999. The album included thought-provoking favorites such as "Air of Gettysburg" (which creates a mood of quiet desperation) and "Trains Rollin' By." For recording this album the quintet called on Freyda Epstein (viola), Mark Schreiber (percussion, drums), and Rosie McNamara (violin, background vocals) to join them. Long-time friend, Peter Humphreys, did the mastering. During the summer of 1999, John Train performed at Appel Farm Folk Fest.
Record Cellar released John Train's sophomore album, Looks Like Up, in October 2001. The title echoes from the late Richard Farina's book Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. Again reflecting Houlon's lyrical and technical songwriting ability, songs like "Misery Loves Company" and "Did You Come By Your Bitterness Honestly?" bring out John Train's solid and realistic approach to music. Mark Tucker (guitar) joined John Train for this recording, and Peter Humphreys again did the mastering.