Terms like Americana and “roots” were first coined to help identify artists who are usually hard to pigeonhole. While the members of Marley’s Ghost might claim musical genres and labels are completely meaningless to them, their new Jubilee readily fits into one specific category. That’s straight up, old, old, old school country & western. In their 10th album, Marley’s Ghost brings back the sort of tunes and styles listeners used to hear before Willie, Waylon and the boys made country cool.
Celebrating their 25th anniversary, the primary ingredients for their country cookout are vocalists Dan Wheetman (guitar, fiddle, harmonica, banjo, Dobro, lap steel), Mike Phelan (guitar, fiddle, Dobro, lap steel), Jon Wilcox (mandolin, guitar, bouzouki), Ed Littlefield Jr. (pedal steel guitar, Highland bagpipes), and Jerry Fletcher (keyboards, percussion). To allow the regular band to play live during the recording, Byron House (bass) and Don Heffington (drums) were brought in to become the album’s rhythm section. Guests include the likes of Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Old Crow Medicine Show, Marty Stuart, and Larry Campbell.
But the most obvious signal that the band wanted to tap into the deepest of country roots was their choice of producer, 81-year-old Cowboy Jack Clement. Once upon a time, he worked at Sun Records and produced the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Roy Orbison, and Carl Perkins. With this sort of direction, it’s not hard to imagine a studio full of musical ghosts hanging around the console. Odds are, they were having a good time.
What could be more working man country & western than a song about a coyote singing outside your window? That’s one of the images in Wheetman’s “The Blues Are Callin’.” The Texas Swing of Bob Wills is channeled in Wheetman’s “South For A Change” with pedal steel guitar, honky tonk piano, and muted trumpets picking up the pace. Phelan had Buck Owens in mind when he wrote “Lonely Night,” in which it’s hard to sleep in a room full of memories.
Not only does the band double up the fiddle players with Old Crow Medicine Show, but producer Clement takes a turn behind the vocal mic for Bobby and Shirley Womack’s “It’s All Over Now.” Marley’s Ghost turned this standard into a pure Saturday night hayride, hoedown hootenanny. How about hard-drinking, one night stands, and sleepovers in jail? Well, Katy Moffatt and Tom Russell’s witty “Hank And Audrey” is about the Williams who “wrote the book” on that sort of life. For this one, session guitarist and fiddle master Larry Campbell added to the stew. How about an outlaw gambler? That’s “Diamond Joe” who’s a legend among the cowpunchers. Speaking of cowboys, remember when they used to yodel? If not, Paul Siebel’s “She Made Me Lose My Blues” will let you know what such songs sounded like. All that’s missing is a pickup truck.
True, not all the 13 tracks are complete throwbacks, but none of them veer very far from the original country & western formulas. There’s the rockabilly of Wheetman’s “Wake Up Mama.” Echoes of The Band are evident in “Growin’ Trade,” in which a cotton farmer hits hard times and turns to an alternate crop. Co-written by Levon Helm, the song was apparently intended for The Band but never recorded by them. John Prine’s “Unwed Fathers,” featuring Harris as the abandoned angel, is social commentary about a teenage father who takes a Greyhound bus out of town rather than face responsibility. Then there are folksy laments like Kris Kristofferson’s “This Old Road” and Butch Hancock’s “If You Were a Bluebird.”
I admit to wondering if Jubilee will appeal to younger generations of country fans used to slickly polished productions with largely interchangeable vocalists and players. It will be interesting to find out. If your leanings are more Chicago and Memphis blues than Appalachian bluegrass, this one might not be your cup of tea. But if you’d like a sample of what country was all about before it became an industry, Jubilee might be a collection y’all want to celebrate.