There isn't much that a folkie loves more than a train. The images and lore of an engine rolling down the tracks, taking both ticketed riders and boxcar-hopping hobos to new destinations and grand adventures, are staples of American songwriting, both past and present. So it's no great surprise that two accomplished part-time folkies, Billy Bragg and Joe Henry, would cook up a project like Shine a Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad. For this album, Bragg and Henry booked a rail trip from Chicago to Los Angeles aboard the Texas Eagle 421 Service, bringing a recording engineer and a portable recording rig with them. At various stops along the way, the duo recorded classic blues, folk, and country songs with railway themes at various train stations and boarding platforms (except for one tune cut at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas, where iconic bluesman Robert Johnson recorded some of his best-known recordings in 1936). The notion of two studious folksingers singing train songs in train stations, with the murmur of passengers and arrivals in the background, sounds like it could be meant as a joke, or perhaps a bit that got left out of the movie A Mighty Wind. In practice, Shine a Light doesn't sound like a prank, but it often comes off as a project built around a big gimmick, and one that's only partly successful. From a standpoint of audio or performance quality, it doesn't seem like much was gained by recording these songs on the run, unless you've always wanted to know what these guys would have sounded like as buskers. And while Bragg clearly approaches this material with the utmost seriousness and respect, there's something curious about hearing such hardcore Americana being sung by a man with a thick Essex accent. Henry possesses a clearer and more pleasing voice, though in moments it's a touch too sweet for the material, and the chalk-and-cheese blend of Bragg's and Henry's voices sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. There's no arguing that the two men chose material that perfectly suits the theme, but "John Henry," "Hobo's Lullaby," and "Rock Island Line" are songs that have been recorded so often over the years by so many artists, there's barely anything left to be discovered in them. Bragg and Henry can sing them with sincerity and respect, but they can't make them sound fresh or surprising, and all the colorful ambience in the world can't change that. Shine a Light is an album of big ideas and lofty intentions, but the truth is this probably would have been better if Bragg and Henry had found a nice concert hall where they could have recorded it in front of an audience that wasn't running to catch a train.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming