Marley’s Ghost, cited by Paste magazine as “(having) earned cult-band status over 20 years of spirited musicianship, multi-part harmonies and irreverent humor,” will return from a three-year absence from recording with a new album, Ghost Town, due out February 23, 2010 on Sage Arts Records. The new album was produced by Cowboy Jack Clement, in whose Nashville home studio it was recorded. The cover was painted by acclaimed American watercolorist William Matthews.
The album follows Marley’s Ghost’s 2006 album Spooked, which was produced by Van Dyke Parks and featured a cover by R. Crumb. Of Spooked, Clement remarked, “The band’s eighth full-length in 20 years glides with deadpan sincerity through sea chanteys, perverted mountain gospel, country-rock, vintage pre-WWII pop, Jazz Age vamps, Dylan, western campfire songs, and a rib-tickling salute to ‘the French Elvis,’ Johnny Hallyday. Brilliantly sung and played, Spooked is a heady, subversive treat.”
The latest development in the band’s recording career may prove to be the crucial link for Marley’s Ghost. Clement, the country music cornerstone whose career entwined with those of Jerry Lee Lewis, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and so many others, is the beloved dean of Nashville producers, and the presence of Marley’s Ghost in his studio earned the band its first Music Row buzz.
“Working with Jack is standing in the front door looking out into the world with the whole house of rock ’n’ roll and country music behind you,” says Marley’s Ghost bassist and singer Dan Wheetman. “Jack is steeped in the Sun Records ideals of music. The technical side is important but takes a backseat to the ‘bang,’ the performance with heart and energy.”
“It’s easy to think of Jack as the guy who wrote hits for Cash at Sun Records and recorded Charley Pride in the ’70s, but you know, he has a platinum album with U2,” he adds, referring to a portion of Rattle and Hum that Clement oversaw.
“Marley’s Ghost is very experienced, versatile and best of all, open-minded, and a fun bunch of guys,” says Clement. “I prefer to play with a great band rather than a bunch of great session players. And they are a great band. They understand that we are all in the fun business and if we’re not having fun, we’re not doing our jobs. And they can play just about anything they want to. Even polkas. I ain’t got ’em to do one yet, but I will.”
After more than 20 years of making music together— recording nine albums and performing thousands of shows around the country — Marley’s Ghost remains one of the best-kept secrets in the music world, an untapped natural resource waiting to be discovered.
“Our criteria,” says the band’s guitarist, Mike Phelan, “has always been: bring it, let’s run it. It’s not about genre or style.” This is one band that knows all the songs from both The Harder They Come soundtrack and Ralph Stanley’s Cry From the Cross. Or as Paste puts it, "a decidedly unusual band, as capable of reanimating Appalachian folk songs as they are traditional Celtic fare, honky tonk and reggae.”
The most important ingredients in the Marley’s Ghost musical brew are the characters in the band. The five multi-instrumentalists boast distinctive musical personalities that couldn’t be less alike.
Dan Wheetman is a veteran of the ’60s Simi Valley, Calif. teen rock group the Humane Society, and, as a member of ’70s country-rockers Liberty, toured for years with John Denver and Steve Martin. Jon Wilcox, mandolinist and vocalist, used to trudge around the country as a solo artist. Mike Phelan, like Wheetman and Wilcox a prolific songwriter, can tear your heart out with a soul tune, put a romantic lilt into an Irish folk tune or blast molten lead guitar licks through the heart of a blues. Innovative pedal steel guitarist Ed Littlefield, Jr., spent years performing C&W in rugged roadhouses for loggers across the Pacific Northwest, and plays a fierce fiddle and bagpipes. And Jerry Fletcher, the band’s secret weapon and unofficial fifth Ghost, became “certified” in 2006, bringing his eclectic music skills (drums, keys, accordion and vocal arranging) to bear full-time.
Together they are a unique amalgam of their respective backgrounds, personal proclivities and musical abilities — a blend honed to a seamless collaboration over the many miles they have traveled together down the road.
“I call it ’bang,’” says Clement in summation. “It’s got bang. The band’s got some bang to it.”