The Home of John Train

The Home of John Train


What the Press said about John Train...

Mesopotamia Blues:

It's a pretty solid roots plate, with real spicy rocknummers which two tearing rock guitars duel, but also ballads with piano accompaniment or pure string band music....The record is so good and refined...

Moors Magazine
Moors Magazine (Google English Translation)

--Beligian EZine, Moors Magazine (9/2008)

First a key fact you might not know: Mesopotamia is the ancient name for the region now known as Iraq. Thus John Train's Mesopotamia Blues is his album about the ongoing, neverending misadventure in Iraq. John Train is Jon Houlon. He wrote seven songs here and set Rudyard Kipling's eerie and disquieting "Mesopotamia (1917)" to music. "Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" depicts visitors to Iraq over many decades each taking some sort of booty out of the country. The Colonel Leachman of "Leachman's Ghost" was in the British force "liberating" Mesopotamia from Turkish rule. He was slain by a Sunni cleric. Sound familiar?

There are four covers. The late John Stewart's "Draft Age" is a Vietnam era song about becoming of age for conscription. John notes singing it he imagines the song's Clarence Mulloy decades later with his son serving in Iraq. This vision is the gist of "Mulloy 2006". Tom T. Hall's "Mama Bake a Pie" is the bittersweet story of a now legless soldier's return home. Terry Allen's "Yo Ho Ho" limns life on a warship. Butch Hancock's "Already Gone" (absolutely NOT the Eagles' song) is a marvelous piece from the Reagan era that resonates even more deeply 20 years later.

Mike Brenner's production is superb. He gives the songs a variety of textures from gentle country to serious rock to Arabic sounds and rhythms. These are sequenced so the variety from song to song keeps the listener fully involved. Brenner on steel guitar Steve Demarest on bass, Bill Fergusson on mandolin and bouzouki, Mark Schreiber on drums, and Mark Tucker on keys and various guitars all support admirably, almost heroically.

Mesopotamia Blues will haunt you. It is potent stuff, possibly the best John Train album Jon Houlon has made.

Sing Out (Volume 52, Spring 2008)

--Michael Tearson, Sing Out (5/2008)

Review of the Bergamo show from May.


--Christian Verzeletti, Mescalina (5/2008)

This is the first person to diss "Already Gone" ... of course, he calls it "Look Her in the Eye" ... Butch says, "The artist will be taken care of ..." Hmmmmm...

Pop Matters

--Jason MacNeil, Pop Matters (1/2008)

(3.5 out of 5 horse review) Um...can you read Dutch?

Alt Country

-- Alt Country (1/2008)

"..riveting...grabbed my attention "


-- Daggerzine (11/2007)

"Consigliato agli appassionati del songwriting texano di marca."

Roots Highway

-- Nicola Gervasini, Roots Highway (11/2007)

(8 out of 10 stars) "A challenging and pleasant experience. John Train singer-songwriter Jon Houlon may have risen to the challenge laid down by Neil Young for a younger musician to write a challenging anti war record, a little too well."

Americana UK

-- Michael Mee, Americana UK (11/2007)

"Though between John Train and the Donuts, he's released 10 albums in the last decade, Houlon calls himself an "amateur musician." There's nothing amateurish about Mesopotamia Blues, however. The production by Mike "Slo-Mo" Brenner of the album recorded at Fishtown's Miner Street studio brings a skilled and versatile roots ensemble to life, and Houlon succeeds at writing story songs, not screeds. "

Philadelphia Inquirer

-- Dan DeLuca, Philadelphia Inquirer (9/2007)

"By day, Jon Houlon is a government lawyer representing Philly's overworked and underappreciated DHS social workers. By night, he's the obsessive, imagistic, lit-witty singer-songwriter behind pub-rockers The Donuts and the damnably poetic John Train."

The interview is funnier...
City Paper

-- A.D. Amorosi, Philadelphia City Paper (9/18/2007)

Nice mention in No Depression.

No Depression

-- Peter Blackstock, No Depression (10/23/2007)

Interesting discussing of Leachman's Ghost...

Flying Shoes Radio

-- Flying Shoes Radio (11/7/2007)

The Sugar Ditch:

"...Jon Houlon throws down the gauntlet here."
"...a masterstroke"
Y'know, it's damn hard to not agree with...

-- Kevin Mathews, (10/2004)

"...wholly deserves its day in the sun. Train spins his yarn about a small-town murder mystery through largely acoustic down-home porch blues, overlapping characters and scenes with a storyteller's practiced finesse....This is to Americana what the Drive-By Truckers' Southern Rock Opera was to alt-country rock: a quality concept record that's in love with its story and characters instead of its ain't-we-clever ideas."

-- Steve English, Spendidezine (9/20/2004)

" just a few musical sketches, Houlon creates a tale that could make a movie as gripping as any novel might... You'll find yourself hitting the play button over and over to enjoy the great pleasure of soaking in another disc of John Train."
Cosmik Debris

-- Shawn Dale, Cosmik Debris (7/11/2004)

(3 1/2 out of 4 stars) John Train, the country-folk quintet led by Philadelphia singer-songwriter and lawyer Jon Houlon, grows more ambitious and more compelling, musically and lyrically, with each release. The Sugar Ditch is, in Houlon's words, "a concept album of sorts" about a murder mystery that ensues after a girl's body is found in a Mississippi "sugar ditch," Deep South slang for a septic runoff area. I haven't been able to figure out all the plot details just yet, but I figure it'll coalesce eventually, and it hardly matters since the songs stand up quite nicely, independently of the story. With production by multi-instrumentalist Mike "Slo-Mo" Brenner, "Are You Like Me?" and the lovely "How Am I Ever Gonna Get Home?" adeptly work familiar country-bluegrass turf. And tunes such as the haunting "The Pulling" and "Shame on You" confidently expand the band's sonic palette into darker, more aggressive territory.

-- Dan DeLuca, Philadelphia Inquirer (7/11/2004)

"Concept albums are always a tricky business, and this one, like most, doesn't quite come together....Occasionally the music rises to the occasion with sludgy, percussion Appalachian rock, but at these moments Houlon's sweet, rather average voice doesn't carry the authority of the music...but all in all it's a less-than-indispensable record, albeit by a good band."

Well, you can't win 'em all, so here 'tis!
Pop Matters

-- Will Steinberg,

"Sterkste troeven van de groep blijken daarbij Houlons bitterzoete (wat hese) stem en zijn een weinig aan John Prine reminiscente, pakkende teksten."

Um, it appears that the reviewer is reminded of John Prine!


"John Train non sono certo un vulcano d'energia; non brillano nemmeno per originale creatività..."

OK, so we don't know Italiano, but perhaps you do. It seems to be favorable...

-- Carlo Lancini, RootsHightway.IT

There's nothing like picking up the Metro on your way to work and seeing a nice interview with John Train.

You can, too...Metro

-- Matt Smith, The Metro

"...the album is commanding. Just below the charming imagery and pleasant melodies lie threatening string arrangements and dark lyrical swerves that take the songs somewhere deeper. The title song keeps one foot in the Appalachian spiritual tradition and the other in today's alt-country."

Read the full review in the Philadelphia City Paper.

-- Patrick Rapa, Philadelphia City Paper

(7 stars) 'Supposed To Wait' links Elvis Costello to the drama of Scott Walker, a discovery worth the effort...Houlon is intelligent enough to allow the songs to be self-contained and never to shoe-horn narrative to fit - instead he lets a series of vignettes tell the story, making no judgments. He should be proud of the results.

Check out the latest reviews in Americana UK.

-- David Cowling, Americana UK

Reviews from the Netherlands are coming in...We can't read them, but they appear to be very positive.

Read Dutch? AltCountry: 3 and a half horse review!

-- Bart Ebisch, AltCountry NL

Read Dutch? Kinda Muzik.

-- Maurice Dielemans, Kinda Musik

Looks Like Up:

(3 out of 4 stars) On the sophomore album by this Philadelphia folksy-country fivesome, singer-songwriter Jon Houlon steps confidently into his own...The growth spurt is most evident, though, in Houlon's songs and the easygoing, conversational way he sings them.

-- Dan DeLuca, Philadelphia Inquirer

John Train is five Pennsylvanians providing an eclectic blend of country/folk/pop flavored support for the songs written by one of their number, lead singer/guitarist Jon Houlon. When you hear these songs, you'll quickly understand why four capable players would devote their attentions to that kind of support role, because they're great to listen to and they sound like great fun to play.

Check out the 7th Anniversary issue of Cosmik Debris Magazine.

-- Shaun Dale, Cosmik Debris

(4 out of 5 stars) The voice and lyrics of Jon Houlon are what sets John Train apart. This is what the Smiths would have sounded like had they been a country band....True, songs telling of a love gone wrong are nothing new but the ability to uplift at the same time is a much harder trick to master.

Go to Americana UK, "The UK home or Americana and Alt-Country"

-- Paul Bronks, Americana UK

(Rated "A" ) How do you describe a songwriting method that synthesizes the best elements of country music and pure pop? How about unadulterated joy? Well, that sums up John Train's latest fine release where shimmering songs like "Lonely Next Door," Misery Loves Company" and "Cracked and Crumbled" are the crucial milestones on a thoroughly enjoyable journey.

Check out Power of, VOL. II #7 Feb 2002

-- Kevin M Mathews, Power of Pop

Jon Houlon lyrically inflicts up his razor sharp wit through and through with the balance of the CD being held together by the tight unit of Brenner, Demarest, Tucker and Fergusson sculpting for the listener a virtual twang-grass soundscape. John Train, a new Philly sound in the making.

-- Alternative

Houlon's bittersweet musings about past love and ruminations on the examined life are punctuated by topnotch playing and Brenner's flourishes.

Check out the entire review from No Depression.

-- Phil Sheridan, No Depression

...The first track reminded me of the Kinks, and I get the feeling in amongst the country roots Houlon has quite a few British artists in his collection, anyone with interests in the new acoustic folk that is coming out of the UK will find lots to keep them interested here.

-- Warren Owen, Alt Country Tab

The organizer of this particular songfest is Jon Houlon, whose vocals and guitar go another mile in giving his lyrics the sweet push they need to sound pure and divinely laid back ("If I'm gonna get blamed for being your lover/I might as well be"). If you liked the Silos or Jayhawks but hated those groups' vocals, don't assume you'll dislike Houlon. His voice is not whiskey-soaked, weathered, exquisitely throat-cancered or even just plain mediocre; he's gentle and loving and rather keen on making the listener feel good.

Read the entire review at

--Theodore Defosse, Splendid

John Train is a band, not a person. Even with this disclaimer, John Train (the band) seems to rely very heavily on vocalist, guitarist and songwriter Jon Houlon, the most prominent person in this Philadelphia folsksy/ quintet. Houlon and John Train are chameleons of style, not in a self-conscious or trendy manner, but as a direct result of being intimately familiar with so many different genres. Houlon's bleakly charming songs and warm, off-center vocals are the heart of John Train's sound, and the rest of the group hangs plenty of rootsy ornaments on their sophomore album, Looks Like Up. When Houlon and the band try a little bluegrass, they project a Garcia/Grisman vibe. When they lean toward the folk end of the spectrum, they suggest a less strident Steve Forbert. When they ride the line, it could go anywhere from Uncle Tupelo to Paul Westerberg. And when they pop it up, they swing and slide Lloyd Cole and Elvis Costello in their Americana modes. Oddly enough, there's even more major and minor roots arcana that crop up throughout Looks Like Up, and although it seems slightly schizophrenic, John Train manages to blend all of these fascinating genre crosscurrents into a cohesive sonic presentation.

--Brian Baker, Amplifier, Issue #28 (January-February 2002)

Philadelphia band John Train shows a lot of maturity on its second album. Jon Houlon, the band's genial singer and songmaker, writes mostly about problems and misconceptions within relationships ("If I'm Gonna Get Blamed," "Did You Come By Your Bitterness Honestly?"). His word play recalls Elvis Costello. He also has a strong gift for lilting melody. Second time out the band feels much more at ease in the studio under Dobro whiz Mike Brenner's knowing production. Brenner weaves lots of textures into the brew: his dobro, Mark Tucker's steel guitar, Bill Fergusson's mandolin, Train alumnus Jay Ansill's fiddle and string quartet arrangements, guest Mike Frank's keyboards and odd horn and backing vocal bits. John Train works hard at their craft, and their growth is satisfying. Between Houlon's crisp song sense and friendly vocals and the band's fine chops, Looks Like Up is one rewarding album.

Check out Sing Out, the Folk Song Magazine!

--Michael Tearson, Sing Out! Vol.45 #4 * Winter 2002

For three years, this quintet has been playing bars in Philadelphia to loyal fans, and now release this fantastic sophomore effort, a follow-up to their 1999 debut Angels Turned Thieves. It is warm and very robust bluegrass-and-country-tinged acoustic music that's got a generous amount of soul and feeling. There's definitely magic in these well-constructed pieces from accomplished musicians.

Check out the entire review from Impact Press .

-- --Don Pflaster, Impact Press, December 2001/January 2002

Let's talk lyrics. There are some great songs here -- from "Misery Loves Company" to "Cracked and Crumbled" to "Did you come by your Bitterness Honestly" Houlon is the master of the wry observation -- personal without being narcissistic, funny yet able to stare reality straight in the eye.

Check out the entire review from Green Man Review.

--Kim Bates, Green Man Review

John Train's second release is a gem of a minimalist singer-songwriter album. Based in Philadelphia, fronted by singer-songwriter Jon Houlon, and produced by Mike Brenner (Marah, Slo Mo), the band has distilled a quiet but deep recording featuring Houlon's smart lyrics and crisp, sophisticated playing.

Looks Like Up is a quiet, pleasant album that, rather than bashing its way in, sneaks into your consciousness with its warmth and its intelligence, its humanity and its humor.

Check out this review of Looks Like Up at

-- William Michael Smith, Rockzilla

Bluegrass never suited Jon Houlon; his songs were always too smart and too modern in their pathos to be squeezed into a form that so relentlessly suggests old ways. But something about the instrumentation of bluegrass has always framed his songs perfectly, given them a perfectly worn denim jacket to keep them out of the cold world of pop or the sometimes presumptuous nature of alt-country proper....

The group's second record, Looks Like Up (Record Cellar)...both ups the ante of Houlon's songwriting and expands the group's sonic palate. Produced by Mike "Slo-Mo" Brenner (who also plays dobro in the band), Looks Like Up is a record of weary interstate travel and last-minute declarations of good intentions, able to laugh at itself without ever devolving into straight jokeyness. It's a little bit Tom T. Hall and a whole lotta John Prine. And just like Prine, Houlon's wily enough to play with old forms and adept enough to adapt them to new ways...

Read the entire review in the Philadephia Weekly Archives.

--Joey Sweeney, Philadelphia Weekly

Singer, songwriter, guitarist, Jonathan Houlon, has a voice that seems vaguely familiar and a wonderful penchant for melancholy themes.

Producer Brenner skillfully balances the tracks keeping a nice tone of understatement throughout the album. Houlon's voice and lyrics are the focus with the instruments coming and going as required to support. Brenner's dobro and Ansil's strings are equally excellent and Houlon's guitar Fergusson's mandolin support nicely.

It often seems that the best lyrics are born out of heartbreak and Houlon's lyrics have heartbreak in spades.

Read more of this review at!!
--Kenneth St.John,

Singer Jon Houlon...brings a lot of depth and vulnerability to his songs - many of which have a world-weary, cynical outlook.

Houlon takes an honest, realistic look at relationships, and he doesn't pretend that happiness is always going to prevail. Houlon never gets in your face, but that doesn't mean that he isn't expressive - and it doesn't mean that he doesn't get his points across on this memorable, heartfelt CD.

Go to the John Train page at All Music Guide.

---Alex Henderson, AMG Review

John Train's 12-song collection may set toes a-tapping with an interesting mix of guitar, lap steel, dobro, mandolin and piano - and John Houlon's foreboding voice. These aren't simple songs, mind you, but complex dramas tied together with lyrics about regrets and what-could've-beens.
-- Brian Steinberg,

Angels Turned Thieves:

With the new Angels Turned Thieves, the local semi-acoustic quintet has scared up one of the finest Philly-made alt-country albums in a long while. ... Thieves is an album that, at first, seems so unassuming as to be slight. But after a few listens, its weirdly sedate world-weariness and reassuring melodicism shyly burrows its way under the skin.

-- Hobart Rowland, Philadelphia Weekly

The cascading images of John Train singer Jon Houlon bear the mark of Texas troubadours Butch Hancock and Townes Van Zandt. And the group's bluegrass and country-tinged acoustic music...sparkles with clarity

-- Dan DeLuca, Philadelphia Inquirer

Jon Houlon has a droll/bleak take on life that's all his own and a fine tune sense.

-- Jonathan Takiff, Philadelphia Daily News


Led by Jon Houlon, the group offers a genial set of well-phrased Houlon originals with a twangy,
bluegrass feel. His writing is always thoughtful and evocative. This is an album that can quickly become a warm friend. 

-- Michael Tearson, Sing Out!

John Train is one of the best folk-pop/bluegrass albums I've heard in a while... Melodies slowly creep up on you... Jon Houlon's voice becomes a friend you haven't heard from in a while.

-- the rural route | recommended albums

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