Marley’s Ghost – Jubilee (review)

Marley’s Ghost – Jubilee (Sage Arts) review

While taking a trip from the Midwest to the Southeast States, I took along the new album from Marley’s Ghost.  And, while watching the city turn into the suburbs, giving way to the farmlands, and then finally, the vast nothingness of the open road, Jubilee provided the perfect soundtrack; it was as if the music was emanating from the highway itself.  Like that road, the members of Marley’s Ghost are well-traveled – they recently celebrated their 25th year together by releasing this star-studded affair.

What makes Marley’s Ghost’s music so remarkable is the way the band melds so many different influences into a cohesive sound – not Americana (just an industry buzz word), but actual American music, meaning music from all over this country; from straight country to rockabilly, blues, folk, Appalachia, Cajun, and western swing.  And everything is done with a vitality that certainly defies their years.

The album opens with “Rollin’,” featuring the deep, resonating voice of Dan Wheetman.  The mid-tempo acoustic track has a weary lyric – “but you keep on rollin’ / cause it’s all you know,” and some fine mandolin work from guest Marty Stuart.  “Wake Up Mama,” is a variation on “Statesboro Blues,” complete with the “turn you lamp down low” part.  The track really cooks with some fierce electric guitar from Ed Littlefield, Jr, who invokes his inner Pete Anderson on the solo.

What else keeps things interesting is that every member of the band sings, each adding a different element to the songs.  Jon Wilcox duets with John Prine on the Kris Kristofferson track “This Old Road” – the two ragged voices add richer colors to the track.  Littlefield takes a turn singing the Levon Helm lost nugget “Growin’ Trade” – he even sounds a lot like the recently-deceased Band drummer on this cut, buoyed by an unlikely accordion.

One of the album’s many highlights is “Unwed Fathers,” where Wheetman’s low voice mixes with the divine Emmylou Harris, who still has that ability to give you chills with her soaring harmonies.  Marty Stuart takes a turn on the mic (along with Wilcox) with the blues rock “Hank and Audrey,” an ode to the famous Williams couple.  The band is joined by the Old Crow Medicine Show for the banjo-infused take on the Stones’ classic “It’s All Over Now.”

“Lonely Night” sounds like the Statler Brothers singing backup vocals with a western swing beat, while “Diamond Joe” is an excellent story song.  The album closes on a surprisingly positive note with “She Made Me Lose My Blues.”

The entire affair was helmed by legendary Sun Studio producer Cowboy Jack Clement, who gives everything an earthy feel. What makes these songs work is the vocalists who add a warm, lived-in feel – they’ve been there and done that, and survived to tell about it.  Whether they’re singing originals or ones from outside songwriters, they still impart a personal feel that makes you believe that it’s coming from the heart.  The playing is stellar as well, and there’s enough diversity in lead instruments – piano, electric guitar, pedal steel, mandolin, banjo, and accordion, to keep you coming back to this one, again and again.  –Tony Peters