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This train
Bound for nowhere (fast)

By Steve Knopper

Hank Williams Sr., who was drunk for much of his adult life before dying young in the back of a Cadillac, wasn't exactly a paragon of virtue. So he's an unusual role model for This Train, a Chicago rockabilly-and-punk trio that emphasizes clean living and studiously avoids stardom.

The most overtly spiritual song on This Train's latest album, "Mimes of the Old West," is a revved-up version of Williams' country-gospel classic "I Saw the Light." It's a clever way of expressing the band's Christian identity and rocking at the same time.

"Hank Williams didn't necessarily live what he said in that song, but I think he attempted to," says Mark Robertson, the band's singer, primary songwriter and bassist. "He knew what was right, whether he chose to do it or not. It doesn't dilute the power of the song. I like the song, but that doesn't mean I encourage a lifestyle of alcohol and abuse. I think you can separate the art from the artist."

On its debut CD, "Mimes of the Old West," which opens with a Link Wray-like rockabilly instrumental before shifting into more contemporary guitar-rock, This Train sneaks religious references into liner notes and lyrics. The band opened frequently for spiritual songwriter Rich Mullins before he died last year.

Though Robertson says he'd like people to buy "Mimes of the Old West," the virtue he emphasizes most, both in lyrics and a recent telephone interview, is humility. "We don't care if we get rich and famous in this band. We don't look at MTV like it's the holy grail," he sings in "We're Getting Nowhere (Fast)." "I like the idea of a concert being a big party and everybody's part of the party. But if you go see a lot of bands it's just all about them. You don't get the sense of bands wanting to be friends with their audience," Robertson says, by phone during a recent western U.S. tour. "I've got no intentions to try to be Elvis or Bono or any of that narcissistic kind of thing. Our happiness isn't based on whether or not people think we're cool."

Knopper is a Chicago freelance writer.

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