A lifelong resident of the anthracite-coal region of Northeastern Pennsylvania and a descendant of Irish-famine refugees, singer/songwriter Thomas Flannery developed an acute comprehension of his own and the region's often bitter and tragic coal mining heritage. But he also developed a journalistic eye for the minute details of quotidian life and a sympathetic understanding of the small-town psyche. Although he waited until well into his 20s to plunge into his musical muse, Flannery emerged in the late '90s as one of his generation's most astute and insightful observers of the human experience, and one of its most talented songwriters.
Born in Scranton, PA, in 1966, Flannery grew up the son of a respected newspaper journalist in adjoining Dunmore, part of a larger community forever scarred by anthracite. Although he was enthralled early on with the Beatles, music was not really an important diversion to the fledgling teenage Flannery. It took his older brother Pat to steer him, in his early 20s, toward music that attempted to make a social difference. Seemingly overnight, music became a passion and outlet for him. Flannery dove headlong into Richard Thompson's Shoot Out the Lights, studying, absorbing, and aping the songs on the album, instinctively developing and sharpening his songwriting skills. He also consumed the work of contemporaries such as John Gorka, James McMurtry, Lyle Lovett, and Robert Earl Keen, as well as rock & roll pioneer Chuck Berry. Equally important in shaping his worldview were historians and social chroniclers such as David McCulloch, Shelby Foote, and Charles Kuralt, the latter whom he would eventually immortalize in song. By the late '80s, Flannery had immersed himself in songwriting practice, and he did little else for a year, going to work, coming home, and writing songs. Besides having become an exceptional composer, he had become a prolific one, writing 100s of songs -- sometimes completing two in a day -- about every conceivable topic, from the minutiae of life to complex themes and concepts.
Around 1990, Flannery met producer George Graham, who also hosted Homegrown Music, a regional-artist series on Northeastern Pennsylvania Public Radio station WVIA-FM, which is part of Mixed Bag, the longest running adult alternative radio show in the country. He invited Flannery to make an appearance on the show, and, in addition to providing an outlet for performing publicly, it put Flannery on the path toward recording his music. He would make over 15 appearances on the series over the next decade, even contributing to the first Homegrown Music Sampler CD in 1997. Each appearance acted as an impetus to write a dozen more songs in order to make yet another appearance. It also put Flannery in contact with a group of disparate songwriters. After Flannery made another request about a Homegrown Music appearance, Graham suggested that it would be interesting to put together a show in which a group of songwriters could share songs and talk about their craft. Booked on that particular show with Flannery were female acoustic duo Kate & CJ, reggae artist George Wesley, and Canadian-born singer/songwriter Lorne Clarke. He especially connected with the latter, forming a partnership of sorts, and Flannery and Clarke would often perform shows together over the course of the next few years. Clarke also acted as a sounding board for a concept Flannery was developing for a recording. The idea culminated with the 1996 release of the limited-edition, cassette-only The Anthracite Shuffle: Reflections on an Anthracite Heritage, a stunning suite of original songs concerned with the legacy of his home region and its long-suffering residents.
In 1998, Flannery entered the studio with New Jersey singer/songwriter/guitarist Neal Casal -- whom Flannery had learned about when Graham lobbied him to feature the guitarist in his newspaper music column -- and keyboard player John Ginty, fresh off a stint in the touring band of Jewel. The three began recording Flannery's official debut full-length CD, Song About a Train, with Graham in the producer's seat. The album was released in July of that year, earning favorable comparisons to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, strong reviews, and solid airplay throughout the United States and Canada. The recording of the CD was such a positive experience for Flannery and response to his initial, solo-folk cassette, The Anthracite Shuffle, was so enthusiastic from the few who heard it that he re-recorded all its songs for his second full-length album, released in 2000.