june 2012

marleys ghost
Marley’s Ghost: (from left) Dan Wheetman, Mike Phelan, Jerry Fletcher, Ed Littlefield, Jr., Jon Wilcox. Twenty-five years on and still raising the bar.

Rollin’ With the Cowboy

By David McGee

marleys ghostJUBILEE
Marley’s Ghost
Sage Arts Records

Celebrating a quarter century together, Marley’s Ghost follows up one of 2010’s best albums (Ghost Town) with the Cowboy Jack Clement-produced Jubilee, which can fairly be designated as one of 2012’s finest long players. The quintet--Danny Wheetman, Jon Wilcox, Ed Littlefield, Jr., Jerry Fletcher, Michael Phelan, multi-instrumentalists all--has played practically every style of roots music under the sun, but on Jubilee, perhaps owing to Cowboy’s influence, the fellows keep a tight focus on their strength as country and folk musicians first and foremost. Thus the style and sound of Jubilee; beyond these are the meaty songs. Wheetman penned four of the baker’s dozen tracks; Phelan contributes and sings a smooth but heartfelt lead on the affecting “Lonely Night,” a tune far less feel-good than its bouncy arrangement suggests, as it details the trials of a man haunted by the memory of the gal who got away (it’s close enough to a Statler Brothers-style human interest story, full of ironies and muted heartache, that Phelan and his mates actually recreate those close-knit Statlers harmonies--if the Brothers ever record again, this song’s for them); and the other eight songs are well-considered covers with eye-catching songwriter credits on the order of Bobby Womack, Kris Kristofferson, John Prine and Bobby Braddock, Butch Hancock, Paul Siebel, Katy Moffat and Tom Russell, Levon Helm and Larry Campbell. Suffice it to say the sum of the parts creates a great whole.

A profile of Marley’s Ghost, with Cowboy Jack Clement

Wheetman sets the tone for this outing with his album opening “Rollin’,” a gentle, loping confessional of a road warrior who’s been wandering so long the surroundings no longer surprise or enchant him, even as he admits he’d be lost if he were anywhere but en route to his next destination (“I’d be a shipwrecked sailor staring out at the sea”). The sense of the endless road is evoked in Jerry Fletcher’s sturdy piano soloing, with notable assists in atmospherics courtesy Littlefield, Jr.’s moaning pedal steel and guest Marty Stuart’s flickering mandolin fills. “Rollin’” ends with its protagonist at large on the land, but Wheetman’s following song, “Wake Up Mama,” is a brisk, buoyant shuffle--spurred mightily by Littlefield, Jr.’s exuberant pedal steel sorties, with energetic punctuation also provided by Fletcher’s piano and guest Larry Campbell’s spitfire guitar exhortations--announcing a gent’s impending return home to his waiting woman, at which point, he announces, “when I get home I’m the only mule gonna be kickin’ in your stall…”  Then the third of three straight Wheetman numbers brings the temperature down to medium cool, as the band eases into the graceful rhythmic pulse of “The Blues are Callin’,” which edges into Bob Wills western swing territory with its big sky ambience; close, lush harmonies; and the addition of trombone, trumpet and clarinet (as well as Fletcher’s electric piano) adding the slightest of jazz flourishes to the proceedings.

Cowboy Jack Clement and Marley’s Ghost perform Clement’s classic ‘Ballad of a Teenage Queen’ at Berkeley Café, Raleigh, NC, September 27, 2009

Later in the album the Ghosts cover John Prine’s wrenching “Unwed Fathers,” a typically astute Prine observation about how the male half of the “children out havin’ children” formulation “run like water through a mountain stream,” whereas the distaff partner is “kept undercover, like some bad dream.” Like the Prine-Iris DeMent duet, this lovely version’s potency lies in the singers’ reportorial account that allows the facts to accumulate until they bring listeners to their knees. In this case it’s Wheetman’s plangent vocal supported by the Emmylou Harris’s tremulous tones in a performance every bit as profound and knowing as the Prine-DeMent version and eons better than the embarrassing display proffered by the odious Deer Tick with Liz Isenburg in the thankless role of duet partner on the tribute album John Prine’s Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows. But Prine himself makes a guest vocal appearance, not on his own song but in teaming with Wilcox to add a certain existential gravitas to a mournful pedal steel-laced rendition of Kristofferson’s meditation on dashed hopes and buried dreams, “This Old Road.” Littlefield, Jr.’s weathered, weary voice is put to good use on the seething “Growin’ Trade,” the Levon Helm-Larry Campbell story of a farmer driven to felonious acts by economic calamity

marley crumbIn the midst of these serious themes, the Ghosts of Marley get feisty here and there. The tempestuous relationship between Hank Williams and wife Audrey gives rise to the spunky Katy Moffat-Tom Russell mini-epic, “Hank and Audrey,” with Wilcox assisted on lead vocals by Marty Stuart in this honky tonk stomp propelled by Fletcher’s piano and Larry Campbell’s stinging guitar. And if you’re one of those folks still cringing at the sight of Mick Jagger backed by the hedge fund managers who call themselves Arcade Fire (is this really what passes for rock ‘n’ roll these days? Wake me when it’s over, please.) performing “The Last Time” on some spent late-night comedy show, the cavalry has arrived in the form of Marley’s Ghost’s bluegrass-cum-country blues version of Bobby Womack’s (and early Roling Stonees') “It’s All Over Now,” spiced as it is by pedal steel, fiddle, National guitar, harmonica, mandolin and a host of voices besides the band’s (including Cowboy himself--listen closely and you will hear…), in what is a moment of pure musicmaking joy and esprit de corps. And do kissoffs get any sweeter than Wheetman’s fourth original song here, “South for a Change”? This delightful western swing number, with a fiddle trio and tasty solos by Fletcher (piano), Littlefield, Jr. (pedal steel) and a spirited Bernie Walker on trumpet, is blessed with exciting dynamics throughout, with the whole enterprise spearheaded by Wheetman’s delightfully free vocalizing.

So Marley’s Ghost, 25 years on, keep on rollin’. And maybe bring Cowboy along for the next ride, too. It’s all good.

Marley's Ghost's Jubilee is available at www.amazon.com

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024