Story by WENDY HOBDAY HAUGH
Simply SARATOGA, Spring 2023
If you’ve never attended a performance by Jim Gaudet and the Railroad Boys, you’re missing out on one of the Capital Region’s true musical treasures. Since 2006, The Railroad Boys—comprised of singer/songwriter Jim Gaudet on guitar, Bobby Ristau on upright bass and backing vocals, Sten Isachsen on mandolin and backing vocals, Sara Milonovich or Tucker Callander on fiddle, and ‘Upstate’ Richie Pagano on piano—have been playing festivals and venues, big and small, all over the country. Their original music, driving energy, and camaraderie have attracted many a guest artist over the years, and in January 2023, following founding member Bobby Ristau’s retirement, the group welcomed Bob Buckley into the fold.
When asked how the band’s name came about, Gaudet chuckles. “There’s no real significance. The first song I ever wrote for the band happened to be called The Railroad Boys, and somehow we latched on to that. I didn’t want my name attached, but I was outvoted on that one.”
Jim Gaudet writes nearly all The Railroad Boys songs, but pinning down the band’s genre can be tricky. Although it started out bluegrass, its style has morphed over time into what Gaudet calls “hillbilly rock ‘n roll.” Still, limiting this band to just one label seems a disservice because, in his songwriting, Gaudet does it all: Americana-roots, classic and outlaw country, Southern rock, honky-tonk, blues, Cajun. You name it, he’s probably done it. In fact, last April at the 4th annual Capital Region Thomas Edison (aka Eddies) Music Awards ceremony at Proctors Mainstage, Jim Gaudet and the Railroad Boys were honored to win Country/Bluegrass Artist of the Year.
Gaudet entered the local spotlight in 1990, playing solo ‘covers’ at open mic nights at Albany’s Eighth Step and Saratoga’s Caffè Lena, a venue he still enjoys playing several times each year. A storyteller and songwriter at heart, Gaudet began composing his own music and lyrics. Eventually, his success as a solo artist performing original songs led to him being signed with an independent label out of New York City. But after Gaudet and his wife, Peg, welcomed son, Jimmy, and daughter, Mary, the demands of his agented performance schedule became too much. Given his full-time employment with the NYS Department of Social Services and his desire to be there to enjoy raising his kids, he decided to take a break from music.
Gaudet has no idea how many songs he’s written, but the thrill of creating never wanes. “I’m always checking out YouTube and WEXT,” he says. “I get a lot of ideas by listening to what other performers and songwriters are doing and learning from them.” Some songs come together quickly. Others, like A Girl Like You from Gaudet’s recent solo album, REAL STORIES, take their time. That gorgeous song came together “in bits and pieces” over a period of 30 years!
The fact that audiences connect more readily with well-known, time-tested cover tunes presents The Railroad Boys with a unique challenge. “Since we play mostly original songs, we try to connect with every new audience by getting them involved lyrically,” Gaudet explains. “In writing something new, I’ll often take a couple of catchy, easily remembered phrases—like ‘She never said, and I never asked’—and go from there.” In his song Darkside of Lonesome, Gaudet incorporates roughly a dozen well-known idioms and Bible verses. The familiarity of the lyrics draws people in, making them feel at ease and a part of the show.
Gaudet has a uniquely animated, conversational style of singing, his tone every bit as original as the songs he writes. Clear diction, an abundance of good humor, and vocal inflections that follow each song’s emotional arc make you feel like you’re talking with a good friend over the back fence. Gaudet can growl, yowl, even yodel with the best of them, and when he belts out a snappy “Hey!” between verses, you can feel the room’s energy surge. Jim Gaudet and the Railroad Boys have a ton of fun onstage. Their friendship is palpable and, better yet, totally audience-inclusive.
In 2019, Gaudet released his first solo album since 2007. A departure from the band’s full-bodied sound, REAL STORIES AND OTHER TALL TALES is Jim Gaudet at his storytelling best, pared down and vulnerable. The album includes 13 songs never intended for the Railroad Boys, as well as a 15-page booklet providing backstory and lyrics for every song. Masterfully produced by Greg Anderson, the CD also features the artistry of Sara Milonovich on harmony vocals and fiddle and Richie Pagano, working his magic at the piano.
“I treasure this CD,” Gaudet says. “But the timing of its release worked against widespread exposure because the pandemic struck, venues closed, and gigs were cancelled. Still, I’d love to get it out there more. It’s very close to my heart.”
In 2011, Jim Gaudet was clinically diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Thankfully, however, its progression has been slow. “Some days are harder than others,” he admits, “but they’re all good.” Managing the disease involves maintaining a rigorous medication schedule, coordinating meals and protein intake around his meds, doing yoga and meditation, vocalizing daily, and getting plenty of exercise, including weekly boxing sessions at Schott’s Gym, Albany.
Presently, there is no cure for Parkinson’s, and Gaudet certainly has his darker moments. But he gratefully attributes his ability to keep living a full life to three things: his music, his wonderful bandmates, and the loving support of his wife and family.
“Both our kids live nearby, and our daughter blessed us with our first grandchild late last year. We’ve waited a long time for that,” he beams, “and we are thrilled.”
Musically, Gaudet never wants to go a day without playing his guitar. “Yet sometimes I pick it up and can’t play at all. I’d love to be doing some solo shows, but the tremors make that impossible. When they kick in and my left arm cramps up—it’s always the left—there’s no coping, no answers. I’ve been lucky so far, though, in that I’ve generally been able to time my medication to work with my performance schedule.”
Jim Gaudet loves what he does, and it shows. For bandmates and fans alike, he puts his all into every performance. “Two or three years ago,” he reflects, “I never imagined I’d still be playing at this point. Even six months ago, I thought December ’22 would be it. But I’m still out there—still writing, singing, playing. If God has given me another day, I have to make a choice: is it a day to squander or make the most of?”
Without question, Gaudet has chosen the latter. And we’re really glad he has.