If there is a group, in the era after the sad passing of Levon Helm, who can push forward the ageless Americana blueprint of the Band, it might just by Marley’s Ghost.
If you haven’t stumbled across this wildly eclectic amalgam featuring multi-instrumentalists Jerry Fletcher, Ed Littlefield Jr. and Mike Phelan, Dan Wheetman and Jon Wilcox, a new guest-filled opportunity arrives with Jubilee, due June 5 from Sage Arts. Produced by Nashville legend Cowboy Jack Clement and recorded at the Sound Emporium space that he constructed, the album includes visits from Larry Campbell, Emmylou Harris, John Prince, Old Crow Medicine Show, Marty Stuart and others.
Clements had the idea of bringing in that slate of stars, and several of his suggestions have album-making results — beginning with Harris’ emotional turn on Prine’s shattering “Unwed Fathers.” Prine also sits in on “This Old Road,” while Stuart adds an oaken texture to “Hank and Aubrey.” Clement even joins in on “It’s All Over Now,” which also features Old Medicine Crow.
Of course, the worry is whether Jubilee, which finds the group in such a crowded space, could keep the voice of Marley’s Ghost front and center — and, I’m happy to report, that it does. And their impeccable taste in song selection allows us to gain deeper appreciation for the band’s, and the source material’s, essential complexities.
An expected high point comes with Helm’s “Growin’ Trade,” from his final studio effort Electric Dirt, in 2008. The song already had all of the enigmatic majesty of a lost Band classic, and that sense of ageless wonder is only deepened by the boldly unimitative approach of Marley’s Ghost. (Having Nashville’s Campbell, a longtime former key member of Dylan’s band and the original co-writer of the Helm tune, provides the song with an additional emotional thump; he also tears into “Hank and Audrey,” from Katy Moffatt and Tom Russell.)
Elsewhere across its rambling, reggae-meets-blues-meets-stone country aggregation of 13 tracks, they work a similar magic on Kris Kristofferson’s “This Old Road,” Prine’s shattering “Unwed Fathers,” Bobby and Shirley Womack’s “It’s All Over Now,” and Butch Hancock’s “If You Were a Bluebird,” among others. Originals include Phelan’s Buck Owens-inspired “Lonely Night,” and Wheetman’s “South for a Change,” which has a delightful Bob Wills feel.
Each is treated with a refreshing sense of gumption. As always, the group approaches all of it with an unfussy sense of joy, touching on the tracks’ traditional elements but never letting their sense of history settle into rote academic aridness.