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Eric Brace swears that it happens whenever Last Train Home plays in D.C.: Someone will ask him where the band is from, and when he says D.C., the questioner will usually ask another question, along the lines of “Really?” It happens as we’re talking between sets at the band’s monthly Felix gig. One minute, he’s telling me how Texans come out of the woodwork to see Home lean into its repertoire of drawl-free country and would-be heartland classics. The next, he’s listening to a woman from Dallas tell him that the whole band should pack up and move to Austin. There’s something vaguely condescending about the fan’s suggestion—does he look like someone who needs career advice?—but Brace doesn’t think anything of it. Instead, he sells the fan a copy of True North, Home’s latest CD. Then he sells a few more to the people standing behind her.
Brace is, by his own account, “a weird combination of humility and self-confidence.” He’s all about allowing the competing forces to duke it out. With the simple removal of a baseball hat, he goes from scenemaker with a smarty-pants goatee to 39-year-old with a retreating hairline and too many ex-girlfriends. When his band covers Buck Owens’ “Heartbreak Mountain,” Brace makes the song his own, not out of arrogance, but out of a respect for his own limits; only a young buck would think that he could be Buck, and Brace is not that guy.
“What do you do with the knowledge that you’ll never be as good a writer as X?” he asks. “Do you just sort of give up? Do you let it inspire you? What do you do with that awareness that there’s always something greater?”
You need to pan pretty far back to get a sense of where Brace is coming from. He went to Wilson High School in the ’70s, alma mater of Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson, but he graduated “two years before all the punk rockers did.” His D.C. was a bluegrass town, a songwriter’s town; his first band, which he joined at college in Boston, was called the Mystic Valley Mountaineers. Needless to say, the band was never courted by Dischord.
After returning to Washington from Boston, Brace spent the better part of the ’80s playing bass in B Time, a “new-wavey pop band” that he formed with his brother Alan, and running his own record label, Top Records. B Time played CBGBs as well as most of the local D.C. clubs, and Top was legit, releasing 11 records in its roughly four-year existence. But Brace admits that he was “never really turned on by the whole D.C. hardcore thing.” After disbanding B Time, he began searching for new directions and realized that “instead of trying to create this angular, weird, amelodic music just to be cool, I really was more interested in the structure of folk songs and bluegrass songs and country songs. That’s what I wanted to play.”
These interests are to blame for Brace’s paradoxical position as a homegrown talent who many people assume is from a different place. When Brace debuted his new band, the Beggars, at d.c.space in the early ’90s, the lineup included a pedal steel player and brother Alan on harmonica; Lyle Lovett’s “LA County” played a feature role in the set. The Beggars didn’t last long, and as Brace crept into his 30s, he snagged a low-level job at the Washington Post (he’s still there, writing a nightlife column for the Weekend section) and started playing bass in the roots-rock band Kevin Johnson and the Linemen. Johnson wrote good tunes, and Brace figured that if he committed himself to playing them well, he could end up being a top-shelf sideman someday. That ambition died when he left the Linemen, but learning to play second fiddle is what made him into the band leader he is today.
“I learned so much about song structure playing somebody else’s stuff for three hours a night,” Brace explains between bites of noodles at Cafe Dalat. “I learned how all the parts should fit together, how not to overplay, how everything should be of service to a greater good. It’s really about subverting ego. The song is the most important thing.”
Brace likens Last Train Home to a bluegrass band that doesn’t bother with pyrotechnics. Which is to say that its members are less interested in taking solos than hitting changes and moving as a unit. By his own admission, Brace has more in common with James Taylor than Buck Owens; he’s not afraid to be earnest, and he’s not one to wink while singing songs about love. But unlike Taylor, Brace has a band. Bassist Jim Gray knows how to hold down a melody, mandolin man Alan Brace isn’t too cool to strum a rhythm, and Alan Enderson could play keys for anyone you’d care to mention. They’re a bar band in the Nashville mold: too good to fetishize rough edges, too proud not to give a worthy song—whether it’s by Hank Williams, Harry Nilsson, or a Brace brother—its due. Call what results country if you want; Home can play anything.
The band has released two records, an eponymous debut and True North, both out on Adult Swim, a label run by Dischord’s Jeff Nelson. (Yes, the old Minor Threat guy digs country. Tom Petty, too. “I’m kind of like the black sheep over at [Dischord],” he says.) Home recently sold out a weekend’s worth of shows at Iota celebrating True North’s release, and the guys will soon be packing for a couple of gigs in Nashville.
Still, “What’s next?” isn’t an easy question to answer. The band members who haven’t hit their 40s yet are getting there fast—which makes personal freedom a bit of an issue. “I think everybody believes that this is the best band they’ve been in,” Brace explains, “but there might be some thought that maybe it’s too late in our lives to really go for the brass ring.” His brother and guitarist Bill Williams each have a wife and two kids. Enderson just got married.
For Brace, who, for the record, isn’t attached (“I just keep writing heartbreak songs”), there’s also the issue of his day job at the Post. “I think somewhere inside me there’s an ambition to be a better [journalist] and to write about important, interesting things,” he says. “But I also know that my life’s only half over and that there’s plenty of time to get back to that. Right now, while I’ve got the energy to get up and play a few sets on stage, I should do it. Because it’s fun.”—Brett Anderson