25 years in, Marley’s Ghost are playing some the of tightest Americana you are likely to find anywhere. They’ve got nice eyes too.
Sage Arts, 2012
7.6 / 10.0
Comprised of Danny Wheetman (vocals, bass, rhythm guitar, fiddle, harmonica, banjo, Dobro, and lap steel), Ed Littlefield Jr. (steel guitar), Jon Wilcox (vocals, mandolin, and rhythm guitar), and Mike Phelan (vocals, lead guitar, fiddle, Dobro, bass, and lap steel), Marley’s Ghost is a group with expertise in as many parts of American traditional music as instruments they can play. Grouped together almost by chance, the Ghost released their first record in 1986. Nine records and twenty-five years later, we have Jubilee. I do believe this record will do a lot to remind “alternative” country fans what country music sounds like with professionals at the helm. With a guest list that includes legends like John Prine, Marty Stuart and Emmylou Harris and newbies like Old Crow Medicine Show on a setlist from a who’s who of songwriters, Jubilee sounds more like a compilation than an individual work. But, the group plays with a sort of warmth that I haven’t heard this material get in a very long time.
Fans of modern indie country associate the entire genre with either raw backwoods Appalachian grooves or the lonesome Texas cowboy on an acoustic guitar. What is ignored entirely by that image is the rich history of Nashville chamber hall country. It is this style that makes Marley’s Ghost so unique. These guys are playing heavy material from writers like Levon Helm (“Growin’ Trade”) and Kris Kristofferson (“This Old Road”), but the performances and production make the record more akin to something you might hear in a Branson theater or on Crook & Chase. For the younger audience, that was a TNN talk show from the days when that network still televised monster truck rallies and cattle auctions. It seems a lot more likely that you would find Marley’s Ghost sporting matching rhinestone suits than matching beards. That will sound a little gross to most, but make no bones about it; there is a lot of love put into the material on Jubilee. Ballads like “Growin’ Trade” and “Rollin’” work best here. “Growin’ Trade”, in particular, is a bit of fantastic. This Levon Helm/Larry Campbell penned track has that swampy zydeco feel that defined a lot of Helm’s best grooves, and I think Marley’s version actually surpasses the original. The really special stuff, however, comes from those guest appearances mentioned earlier. Larry Campbell (of Dylan’s Never Ending Tour band) does some amazing guitar work on “Hank and Audrey”. The duet with Emmylou Harris on “Unwed Fathers” is the kind of song that will absolutely make your week. Just for future reference, ANYTIME you have the opportunity to hear Emmylou sing a John Prine song, just say ‘yes’.
The crisp production and tight, understated performances from Marley’s Ghost will more than likely smell like mainstream stodge to some. I have to admit being wary of it myself. Of course, I would have been wrong. There is nothing about country music that has to be rough to be good. With Jubilee, Marley’s Ghost take the choicest material, with the choicest guests, and play everything to detailed perfection. Don’t trust me? Okay, put on the track “The Blues Are Callin’”. If you can get through the organ solo without feeling your heart get warmer, then I’ll admit I’m dead wrong. I don’t think any living music fan could dispute it though. There are elements of pride and love in this music that are simply undeniable. These songs aren’t all about God and murder, but real life isn’t so much about those things either.
“It’s All Over Now”
Purchase Marley’s Ghost’s Jubilee