- Associated Press - Monday, June 26, 2017

NORTH FERRISBURGH, Vt. (AP) - A 19th-century railroad car sits in a field off Covered Bridge Road, its fading brick-red exterior paint tipping off the decaying wood inside.

That decaying caboose, though, is filled with tales, just like the man who lived in the 1898 railroad car in the 1970s. Bruce “Utah” Phillips was a folksinger, storyteller and troubadour who stayed in the caboose while recording for the North Ferrisburgh label Philo Records, starting in 1973 for the album “Good Though.”

The car - a flanger car that cleared snow off railroad tracks but is commonly known as “Utah’s caboose” - has been the stuff of Vermont lore for decades, known as that mysterious place where an underground folk-music hero lived an unconventional life much like the hobos and railroad workers he sang about. The car has languished in harsh winter weather on private property, and seemed destined to dissolve into memory as it disintegrated into the dirt of northern Addison County.

Phillips died in 2008. His caboose will live on, now that the singer’s son and a collection of folk-music lovers have come to its rescue. A concert earlier this month in the field housing the caboose raised money to transport the car to the Black Butte Center for Railroad Culture, a museum in Weed, California, that documents the history of railroads and the life lived along the tracks throughout North America.

“This is our family,” said Rik Palieri, the Hinesburg musician and friend of Phillips who’s helping to lead the charge to fund the project. “This is part of the Champlain Valley folk family stepping forward.”

The caboose will serve as a library within the museum and will preserve memories of Phillips and the railroad culture he honored. Phillips‘ son, Duncan Phillips, is compiling letters and emails from people about the time they spent in the caboose and with his father.

“The thing I’ve learned about dad,” Duncan Phillips said, “was how much he meant to people.”

Philo Records became a prominent folk-music record label in the 1970s as the home for the music of nationally-known artists such as Mary McCaslin and Dave Van Ronk and Vermont acts Jon Gailmor and Kilimanjaro. Utah Phillips recorded at the North Ferrisburgh studio on several occasions and lived in the caboose on and off for about three years.

He spent $500 to buy the railroad car and another $500 to move it near the recording studio, according to the property’s current owner, Steve Pilcher. The caboose came by train and traveled the last few miles to North Ferrisburgh by flatbed truck.

“For the locals it was almost like the Queen Mary coming through town,” Palieri said.

Philo Records ended when the label was purchased by Rounder Records in 1982. Steve Pilcher and his partner, Deb Gaynor, bought the building - a pig barn before it housed Philo Records - in 1986 from Philo’s co-founder, Bill Schubart, and turned it into their residence.

The caboose was part of the deal. The couple rented the car to a friend for a while, but with no electricity and only a wood stove for heat the 40-by-8-foot space is not primed to become part of the tiny-house trend. Pilcher re-sided it a couple of times and used it as a shed, but otherwise the car that rests in a field near solar panels and 11 llamas kept by the couple had become a quirky afterthought.

Pilcher said he realized, “Geez, the caboose is getting a little long in the tooth,” and put an ad online mentioning the Phillips connection and asking for $10,000 for the car. Duncan Phillips caught wind of the ad and contacted Pilcher about his hope to turn the caboose into a library honoring his father. Pilcher agreed to sell the car to Phillips for $4,000.

The plan is to raise $25,000 to fund the car’s move by flatbed truck across the country. “A train car is something, especially the caboose he lived in, that is completely identifiable for people,” said Duncan Phillips, who lives in Salt Lake City. “This is the one thing I found that I think is a worthwhile thing to raise money for that really perpetuates his body of work.”

“The caboose,” Gaynor noted, “is a tangible connection.”

Organizers plan to raise money at Saturday’s concert and one Sunday at another Phillips‘ haunt, the folk-music venue Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, New York. Saturday’s show will feature performances by Palieri and Gailmor plus fellow Vermont musicians Paul Asbell, Pete Sutherland and Rick Ceballos. Duncan Phillips and his brother, Brendan Phillips, will also perform.

The concerts will raise money but are also meant to raise awareness, according to Pilcher. “Come for the music,” he said, “but think about the project.”

Palieri hopes the events will increase awareness of Utah Phillips. He met Phillips at the Philadelphia Folk Festival in 1973, when Palieri was marching in a parade while playing Polish bagpipes and Phillips threw him a funny look. They reconnected at the Champlain Valley Folk Festival at Kingsland Bay State Park in Ferrisburgh. “I think I can help you,” Phillips told Palieri after hearing him perform.

Phillips invited himself to Palieri’s house, where Palieri and his wife made vegetarian chili and Phillips listened to Palieri’s songs and offered advice. Palieri, who plays a panoply of instruments including guitar and banjo, continues to carry the gregarious storytelling characteristics associated with Phillips in his own performances.

Phillips asked Palieri to join the Rose Tattoo, a loose affiliation of collaborators. “It was like a fraternity of friends,” Palieri said. “They pledged they would take care of each other.”

Palieri remembers Phillips visiting his house in Hinesburg with other members of the Rose Tattoo and having a “Gandalf moment” when he decided to set off fireworks just before midnight on a Thursday. Friends who lived four miles away called the next day to ask what the explosions were all about.

“With the Rose Tattoo and Utah you never knew what would happen,” Palieri said. “It was about the theater of the moment.”

Phillips was also a serious student of his craft. His stepfather ran a vaudeville house in Utah, and Palieri said Phillips studied the humorous patter of the performers who passed through and incorporated those skills into his own act.

“Comedy was a big part of Utah’s show,” according to Palieri, who said the singer who sang about railroad life and fought for the rights of union workers performed his material with dramatic stage flair. “It was more like a play.”

Palieri said Phillips would call him and ask for details of Palieri’s performances, from how many people attended each gig to the quality of the stage lighting. Phillips urged him to bring two shirts to every show in case the stage background matched the shirt he was wearing so he could change into one that would make him stand out better.

“He really liked the nuances of the stage world,” Palieri said.

Phillips‘ socially-conscious storytelling echoed the work of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, but he never achieved the fame of either of those folksingers. “Utah was very political and he really stood behind his words,” according to Palieri, who said Phillips had the chance to have Johnny Cash record one of his songs but turned the country-music star down. “I think he felt that kind of attention would change his life in a direction he didn’t want to go.”

Phillips received a late-career boost when folk-rocker Ani DiFranco made a 1996 album with him, “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere.” ”It brought a whole new audience that rejuvenated his career,” Palieri said.

Palieri and Pilcher spoke of Phillips while gathered inside Pilcher’s home before adjourning for a tour of the caboose Phillips lived in. Palieri brought his guitar and sang one of Phillips‘ songs inside the caboose with the lines “It’s sad/But the telling takes me home.”

Palieri said Phillips wrote the song when he was at Caffe Lena but pining for the west. Inside the caboose it sounded like a song for the train car itself, which soon will make the long journey home to a museum celebrating railroad culture and the life of a man who also celebrated that culture.

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Online: https://bfpne.ws/2t6SGpV

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Information from: The Burlington Free Press, https://www.burlingtonfreepress.com

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