Dan Wheetman, Jon Wilcox, Mike Phelan, Ed Littlefield Jr. and Jerry Fletcher -- all impressive if under-appreciated multi-instrumentalists -- collaborate in the way that only long-time friends can. This isn't about skillful telepathy (though it is that) but rather something more personal. Guitar solos playfully challenge piano runs, stout backbeats and sharp shuffles sustain joyful singing and pedal steel seals the melodies throughout. This is country music, but country music played as if on a small stage or a green room of some long-closed Lower Broadway honky tonk in Nashville. It's a snug, deft and lively sound, never too close to A-Team precision, but never too far away either.
For this album, Marley's Ghost expands its circle of friendship, inviting the band's own idea of an A-Team -- Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Marty Stuart, Larry Campbell, Byron House and Don Heffington all make appearances -- as well as members of Old Crow Medicine Show, who give the Bobby Womack standard "It's All Over Now" a carefree, old-time string band swing.
Produced by maestro Jack Clement in Nashville, the album combines some of the band's strongest original material with covers, both classic and obscure, from some major songwriters: John Prine ("Unwed Fathers"), Kris Kristofferson ("This Old Road"), Katy Moffatt and Tom Russell ("Hank and Audrey"), Butch Hancock ("If You Were a Bluebird") and Paul Siebel ("She Made Me Lose My Blues"). With an appropriately Band-flavored sound -- dig the blend of accordion and organ and the pealing harmonies -- the quintet also covers Levon Helm's "Growin' Trade," a fitting reminder of the late icon's underrated talents as a songwriter.
In a sense, if one were to look for a contemporary successor to the Band, one could do worse than turn to Marley's Ghost. All the country, blues, rock 'n' roll, bluegrass and swing is here in these friends' encyclopedic but never bookish knowledge and deep love for American music. "Jubilee" is a fitting party for their 25 years together. Here's to 25 years more.
"Jubilee" will be released June 5 on Sage Arts.