Marley’s Ghost is the capable inheritor of the archetypal Americana blueprint drawn up by The Band. As the L.A. Weekly aptly put it, “This West Coast group deftly dashes across decades of American music to create a sound that’s steeped in tradition but never bogged down by traditionalism.”
A virtuoso aggregation composed of singer/multi-instrumentalists Dan Wheetman, Jon Wilcox, Mike Phelan, Ed Littlefield Jr., Jerry Fletcher, and Bob Nichols, the band can sing and play anything with spot-on feel, from roots to rock, blues to bluegrass, soulful gospel to stone country, which is what they’ve been doing — to the ongoing delight of a fervent cult that includes many of their fellow musicians — throughout their three decades as a working unit.
The band will celebrate its 30th anniversary this year with the release of The Woodstock Sessions, helmed by Grammy-winning producer Larry Campbell, who connected with the band after working as a sideman on its previous recording, the scintillating roots-music tour de force, Jubilee. That album, produced by legendary Nashville cat Cowboy Jack Clement and recorded at the city’s venerable Sound Emporium, also featured guest performances from Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Marty Stuart.
Known for his artful work with Bob Dylan, Levon Helm, and countless others, Campbell guided the Ghost’s recent dig into its garden of deep roots to uncover a host of hidden gems. Featuring its trademark multi-part harmonies and multi-instrumental skills, the band’s 11th album is a resonant road trip through America’s past set firmly in the present. For the recording, Campbell, a master musician of all things stringed and winner of an Americana Music Association Lifetime Achievement Award, brought Marley’s Ghost to the legendary Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock, N.Y.
“Woodstock itself is a timeless old place and I think it influenced the vibe of the album as much as the choice of tunes,” says Wheetman. “Larry saw in the band the deep connection we have with the world of traditional music and his excitement and passion for the music made the sessions come alive. He drew a lot out of us, made us dig deeper into ourselves musically.”
“In addition to his incredible musicianship on so many instruments, he has an amazing ability to recognize what he has to work with and use it to create magic,” adds Fletcher. Wheetman concurs. “Larry is the kind of producer who has a vision and the language to convey that vision to the artists . . . a producer who sees the strengths of the individual musicians and is able to pull that out of you when you weren’t aware of your own capabilities. As in all good projects, there was bonding of all the parts and that made this album a joy to record and perhaps our most honest project so far. I know when it’s right because I want to listen to it over and over.”
A “bonding of all the parts” could also well describe Marley’s Ghost itself, a unique amalgam of the band members’ respective backgrounds, personal proclivities, and musical abilities — a blend honed to a seamless collaboration over the many miles they’ve traveled together. Wheetman, Wilcox and Phelan first came together like bluegrass samurai during a fateful week of St. Patrick’s Day shows in the San Fernando Valley in March 1986. Wheetman was living with Wilcox, who brought along his friend, Phelan. The three clicked instantly. It was reggae-minded Wilcox who conjured up the name, with a nod to Charles Dickens.
They reprised the act a couple of months later at the first spring edition of the Strawberry Music Festival, the long-standing California folk music tradition just about to branch out beyond the strictly traditional music the festival always featured, perfect for Marley’s Ghost. They mowed ‘em down at the breakfast show with their a cappella version of Dylan’s “Lay Down Your Weary Tune.”
That winter, when Wheetman went to record his solo album at the invitation of his friend, Ed Littlefield Jr. (who’d built a recording studio on his remote Washington farm), he brought Wilcox and Phelan to sing with him on the sessions. Littlefield set up his gear with the band the first night they arrived and the jam session went into the night. “When I woke up the next morning,” says Phelan, “Eddie was in the band.”
A long and lively musical adventure thus began. In time, friends and kindred musical spirits Jerry Fletcher and Bob Nichols would follow suit and three decades later they are all still standing and playing together with the same passion and chemistry that informed their early years.
And the winning chemistry between Campbell and Ghost that defined The Woodstock Sessions has already set yet another recording project in motion — a gospel album, a genre beloved by both artist and producer.
“Larry’s work is informed by the deepest understanding and love of traditional American musical styles and feels,” says Wilcox. “His head is so full of music. He makes us trust and share in his vision of how good it can sound.”
What the press is saying about Marley’s Ghost:
“… music made by voices you trust and instruments you believe in … the sound of the time and place you remember growing up in—or at least wish you did.” —Parcbench.live
“… remarkable, distinctive voices … giddily eccentric eclecticism … a heady, subversive treat.” —No Depression
“Jubilee is a joyous record that more than earns its title … Marley’s Ghost is a fantastic band who have themselves figured out.” —PopMatters
“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 be Marley’s Ghost.” —Something Else!
“The vocals will blow you away with their purity … the group sings with the heartfelt conviction that only those who embody music’s spirituality can convey.” —Relix
“The real draw is the band itself, showcasing the kind of ensemble performances that come only from a lifetime of playing together, thriving across the decades as virtuosic, unsung heroes of country, folk, and Western swing.” —Acoustic Guitar
“… goes down smooth, rich and delectable.” —Los Angeles Daily News