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Train Songz: Billy Strings Fan Culture & Lot Zines Made with Love

Train Songz is a zine created by and for the Billy Strings fan community.

Billy Strings is a bluegrass musician who has built a robust community of fans and creatives who love his music, his open-minded personality, and the atmosphere at his shows. For the uninitiated, Billy performs both original music and songs from the bluegrass and Americana music tradition, in the two-set jam band format popularized by the Grateful Dead.

This format permeates not just the music but the culture surrounding it, and the parking lot scene attracts vibrant personalities. Many creative people gather at Billy Strings concerts to share stories, create memories, and sell their often-handmade wares.

By using his large and growing platform in this way, Billy not only keeps the music alive, but also introduces more and more people to old-time bluegrass music, in his own personal style.

Enter Train_Songz

One such entity, who is a fan of Billy Strings and a creative, is train_songz, a lot culture meme Instagram account that produces a fan zine about Billy Strings and the songs about trains that he plays. Train_songz recently experienced a milestone on April 13th, 2024, when Billy Strings played a full set of train songs.

Cluckin’ Chuck of Extra Chill explores all that and more in our first-ever Lot Culture Vendor Meme Account Q&A, with The Conductor of train_songz. Learn all about train_songz and their Billy Strings Fan zine below. Enjoy!

Billy Strings – Train / Animal Songs Tampa 4/13/24

Press play, then read.

Who is train_songz?

train_songz zine at a Billy Strings show in Nashville, TN.

train_songz: We are all train_songz! It’s corny and a bit deflective, but I mean it: I don’t think of train_songz as a person, nor do I care to implicate myself in the content by attaching a face and a name to train_songz. That’s not what it’s about. I want the memes and the zines to capture a communal love and appreciation of Billy Strings, as well as the rich history of bluegrass and Americana musicians on whose shoulders he stands and the musical tradition within which he iterates. Train_songz is less of a person or a character and more like a spirit that takes over my body to use my phone, laptop, and opposable thumbs to communicate with the world.

train_songz: In terms of the sentient bags of meat and bones who shovel coal into train_songz’s furnace to keep her chugging down the line, editing memes and folding zines and all that, we’re a team of two. One person runs the Instagram account and handles the bulk of the administrative zine dirty work, and another designs the cover art, contributes about half the writing, and helps with zine production. (They live a few hours away, but come stay the weekend when it’s time to stamp and stuff 1,500 envelopes…and when we’ve made zines by hand, which is quite the labor of love, he help with that as well. But with half of the second edition and for most of the third, we’ll be working with a print shop to keep ourselves sane.

Envelopes full of train_songz zines.

train_songz: It just got to be too much, and I want people to get their zines generally around the same time versus only being able to make like 200 a week. I’m figuring out how to keep the hand-made craft alive, maybe with random people getting 50 or so hand-made ones…) But the two of us are generally texting every day about meme ideas or research rabbit holes we’re thinking of going down for the zine. It’s an obsession, and a damn fun and rewarding one at that.

How can somebody subscribe to your Zine?

train_songz: Each zine requires you to fill out a Google Form! (It’s not a “subscription,” because you need to sign up each time. I do that because I mail it for free, so I want to make sure people actually want to get it and are making the intentional choice to do so each time. (I’m also not technologically savvy enough to make an online portal where people could manage their subscription and change their address, so the simplest option for now seems to be requiring a new sign-up each time. I’d love to figure this out for the future…)

train_songz: For now, it works like this: You give me your mailing address and a few other details, and when the zine is ready I’ll mail you a posted envelope stuffed with the zine and a few stickers. The heroes at the United States Postal Service take it from there, for the low cost of 68 cents per stamp. (It was 66 cents for the first zine, but stamps went up two cents between zines…)

How can we help you keep Zines in publication?

train_songz: I can’t pretend to be a spokesperson for all of zine culture, because I didn’t have that much experience with them before starting one. (We do each have a fair amount of print media experience between us, so we absolutely have a soft spot for print and a desire to keep the tradition alive and thriving.) But with that caveat, I would say the obvious thing to do is to support any zines popping up in subcultures you’re part of, whether that support is with your time; talents; or cold, hard American dollars.

train_songz: And if you’re part of a vibrant scene but there’s not a zine for the community, consider starting one and distributing it when the community gets together! All you need is paper, a pen, a photocopier, and a pair of scissors. Share your art and your words with the world, if you feel driven to do so. In my experience, it rocks!

Stickers for Train Songz issue 2.

When was the first time you heard Billy Strings, and what song was it?

train_songz: I’d probably heard a song here or there before this, but the first time I consciously sat down to listen to Billy Strings was April 2020. The work from home mandates kept getting pushed back, and I was spending a ton of time alone. I was a few years into a pre-1974 live Grateful Dead obsession, and Billy had just played at the Capitol Theater a few months before in January 2020, so I’m sure I was in Relisten and was listening to recordings of “Wharf Rat,” “Me and My Uncle,” or “China Doll.” I’m 100% guilty of being the meme of being trojan horse of Grateful Dead covers getting you deeply into bluegrass.

train_songz: Of the two of us working on the zine, one introduced the other to Billy Strings. The one who first found Billy’s music absolutely LOVES old stuff. They’ve been seeking the OLDEST shit they could find for years. Billy, as a resurrector and champion of some very old musical traditions, definitely tickled our fancy on the quest for old stuff.

First issue of Bluegrass Unlimited, May 1967.

What’s the longest train ride you’ve ever been on?

train_songz: New York Penn Station to Chicago Union Station to see John Mayer and what’s left of the Grateful Dead. My friend’s dad had extra Amtrak points from work or something, and he gave them to us so we could have a pretty heavily discounted sleeper car. It was really nice to have a bed because I think it was a seventeen-hour ride or something like that — I remember waking up on the top bunk, looking out the window and seeing the nothingness roll by. I think we were in the middle of Indiana when I woke up. It was only a one-way trip, though, we split the difference and flew back. 

What did it mean to you when Billy performed the all train first set in Tampa Florida? What was the reaction like? 

train_songz: Pure joy. That’s what a communal music experience is all about, right? And I’d be lying if I didn’t say a little bit of shock that this mythical all-train set was actually happening. And then also just absolute respect for Billy for committing his live shows to keeping this old-timey music alive.

train_songz: Yes, we could say he “committed to the bit” and made the meme of an all-train set come to life. But I also think it’s deeper than a meme that’s like, “Haha, this is silly! It’s a song about a train! Choo-choo!” I don’t know the guy, but my own armchair psychologist’s reading of Billy’s deciding to do that is more along the lines of Billy and his band taking a lot of pride in keeping bluegrass music alive.

train_songz: Not many other acts on the planet are playing one or two train or animal songs per show, let alone doing it in sold-out arenas. So I see the set as a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of Billy’s respect for bluegrass music. And maybe there’s a little bit of also wanting to challenge themselves to put on a kick-ass show within the creative constraint of only playing train (and animal) songs. But mostly I think it’s the former: a celebration by Billy that they’re keeping old music alive, they’re injecting new life into it, and they’re having a ton of fun doing it.

Train Songz zine in Lexington.

train_songz: What would inspire Billy to do it? (Other than his Reddit AMA, where he shared a desire to do it.) I do feel like there’s been something in the water about train songs in the last few years, maybe as a new generation discovers these great songs through musicians like Billy and Daniel Donato, who also did an all-train set for Halloween last year. (Trick Or Train!) Or maybe it’s modern artists like Molly Tuttle adding their own train songs into the mix. (“San Joaquin!”) But I don’t think it’s an accident, and whatever Billy picked up on is the same vibration I picked up when starting a meme account called train_songz (a pun on Trey Songz) in the first place. It doesn’t happen in isolation, but out of the vibrations of the community as a whole…and Billy is tuned in more than most, I’d venture to say.

train_songz: I was inspired to start the account because I’d wear a shirt with a few trains on it to Billy shows. It’s an awesome shirt, my brother found it for me at a vintage store. Not like a Goodwill where you’re hunting for cool stuff, like a curated vintage situation. He’s a great gift-giver. And because Billy plays songs about trains, I started wearing my train shirt to shows. And I’d get compliments from other fans on the train shirt. And then my friends and I went to see Billy in Bridgeport, CT, last summer and he was wearing a conductor hat, which is when I thought of the pun on Trey Songz…like calling Billy Strings Train Songz. All those vibrations lead to the account… Billy turned them into an all-train and all-animal set… Trains are in the air.

If you were a train, what kind of cargo would you carry?

train_songz: Zines.

Is there a particular train or model train that you’re keen on?

train_songz: I live in New York City, so the subway is part of my daily life. I love an R46 or R68 subway car because they have the “conversational” seating layout, where the orange and yellow seats face different directions in the interior. These older cars have a much better vibe than the newer cars, which have a straight row of seats facing each other on either side of the interior. It’s always a better commute to or from work (memes and zines do not, unfortunately, pay the bills) when I get a seat on an R46 or R68. Though I must admit the R46 is especially comfortable on the senses: good wallpaper. Good lighting. The best.

train_songz: I can’t pretend to be a legitimate rail fan who could hold their own in a conversation with railroad enthusiasts who know the specific makes and models of trains. I absolutely loved trains as a kid, and that’s definitely where my enthusiasm for trains and train songs comes from. I dressed in a conductor Halloween costume with my name embroidered on the hat. Had model trains. Train cake at my birthday party. The whole 9. (I do still have the Lionel train set from my childhood, and I can’t wait to get that bad boy out of storage when the time is right. That time is when I don’t live in a tiny studio apartment that’s increasingly being taken over by zine supplies. It’s getting tight in here.)

Train Songz Issue 1 prototypes.

What is your Mount Rushmore of train songs?

train_songz: “City of New Orleans,” “Greenville Trestle High,” “Ridin’ That Midnight Train,” and “I’d Like To Be A Train.”

If you could take a slow train for a long ride with Billy to see any concert in the country, where would you guys ride and what show would you guys go and see?

train_songz: I’d love to go to a premiere mariachi show in Mexico. I love listening to mariachi bands, their music is emotional and absolutely beautiful, even though I can only make out about a quarter of the words with my not-very-good Spanish. I remember Billy put some videos on his social media a year or two ago, when he was on vacation in Mexico, and he was playing guitar with a mariachi band. Guillermo Strings! I’d love to attend a mariachi show with him, and hear his perspective on the music, because it’s so different from what he plays.

train_songz: As an aside, I think if someone did to traditional Mexican music what he’s done to his brand of bluegrass and traditional American music…with a deep honor for the tradition but a lack of fear to add his own twist on it…that would be something special. Maybe he’d get some ideas.

When can we expect to see you on lot? Do you set up shop before concerts?

train_songz: I haven’t been setting up shop to hand out zines. At the shows I’ve been to since I started the zine, my friends and I have kept about fifty zines in our pockets and handed them out when meeting new people or when we’ve felt like the vibe is right to approach someone and offer a strange, tiny paper booklet. (A few times I’ve been told by the person I was trying to give it to that they already got it in the mail, which is a gnarly experience.)

Zine 2 apartment setup.

train_songz: As the zine’s subscriber base has grown, I got overwhelmed keeping up with making each zine completely by hand by myself. I did that for all 550 of the first zine and for the first 800 or so of the 1600 I distributed of the second edition, but it stopped being fun and started being stressful because it was getting in the way of other responsibilities, so I needed to decide between limiting subscribers or getting production help. I decided to get help from a local print shop on printing, folding, and binding the booklets. (I still stamp on the cover art and prepare each envelope by hand.)

train_songz: Working with print shops allowed me to make more zines than making them by hand when it was basically “one in, one out” and instead operate at a surplus. With that surplus I’ve been able to partner with some awesome lot denizens who go to a lot more shows than I do and have been handing them out for free to people stopping by their spots: bouthalfpastdead and forestcitypress have helped me out so far, and I want to continue getting them into lots when I can’t be there. The Billy Strings scene has a really fantastic community, and they’ve been really kind to help me out.

Anything else you want to mention?

train_songz: Keep sending cool vids of trains and bands playing train songs, whether it’s at your local music venue or a Billy arena. And go see those local bands! Support live music and the musicians behind it!