Ghost Town Blues Band makes stop at Crash Music

Mike Easterling
measterling@daily-times.com

FARMINGTON — When Ghost Town Blues Band front man Matt Isbell says his Memphis-based group is anything but a standard blues band, he isn’t exaggerating.

The Ghost Town Blues Band plays Thursday, Sept. 22 at Crash Music in Aztec.

Isbell, the group’s guitarist and vocalist, comes from a roots-folk background. Drummer Preston McEwen is a rock ‘n’ roller, while bassist Matt Karner has a jazz background. Keyboardist Jeremy Powell grew up playing gospel, and trombonist Suavo Jones favors hip hop.

Conspicuously absent from that range of styles and influences is the blues. And yet, somehow, the Ghost Town Blues Band has established itself as a comer in that genre, earning four nominations this year in the Independent Blues Awards.

“When people hear the name blues in your band, they get the idea of where you belong,” Isbell said. “But we’re definitely not the same old same old blues music. What we do is play good eclectic roots music that’s driven by the blues, but it’s an on ramp to so many different genres.”

Isbell isn’t shy about touting his group’s uniqueness or its penchant for laying down a groove.

“With this band, the music takes on its own life,” he said. “I compare it to a wild horse. You just jump on, hold on tight and enjoy the ride. There’s no taming this music.”

Sonically, the band certainly stands apart, owing mostly to Isbell’s cigar box guitars — he’s built dozens of them himself, putting the wood shop skills he learned in high school to good use — and its push broom percussion, which is amplified by the placement of pick-ups in the bristles.

Isbell even made his pooch a featured vocalist on the appropriately named “My Doggy,” a cut from the band’s 2015 disc “Hard Road to Hoe.”

“He howled in key,” Isbell said, laughing. “No Auto-Tuning for my dog.”

That kind of approach to music making might strike some as unusual, but Isbell said it doesn’t raise many eyebrows in Memphis, a creative melting pot and musical hot bed where it can be difficult to get noticed if you’re not doing something exceptional. The Ghost Town Blues Band started as a trio but quickly grew into a sextet determined to do something fresh and new.

"Hard Road to Hoe," the most recent release by the Ghost Town Blues Band, showcases the band's improvisational style.

“It’s something you couldn’t have designed,” he said. “But it comes together perfectly.”

The band never struggled to establish an identity, Isbell said, in large part because of his Type A personality.

“I’m a pretty bossy type, but most band leaders are,” he said.

Even so, there’s plenty of room for each member to do his own thing. The band relies heavily on improvisation, meaning a typical Ghost Town Blues Band set can invoke the sound of artists ranging from the Black Crowes and the Allman Brothers to any one of a number of legendary horns-heavy Stax Records acts, including Booker T and the MGs.

“There’s a formula to each song, but the notes are played in between,” Isebell said. “It’s up to each character to decide how that sounds.”

“Hard Road to Hoe” is the group’s third album in the seven and a half years it has been together, and Isbell considers it the band’s most ambitious effort yet. McEwen, the band’s drummer, serves as an engineer at the famed Ardent Recording Studios in Memphis, where such artists as James Taylor, Led Zeppelin, Leon Russell, Big Star and a host of Stax Records acts have recorded over the years, and that connection got the Ghost Town Blues Band access to that facility.

An online fundraising effort netted $10,000 from fans for the disc’s promotional push, and Isbell managed to secure the services of longtime friend and Grammy-winning producer Kevin Houston (North Mississippi Allstars, Buddy Guy, Steve Forbert, Patty Griffin, Jim Lauderdale, Luther Dickinson) on a handful of tunes.

With resources like that behind it, Isbell knew “Hard Road to Hoe” would need to make a strong impression on people. It seems to have done that, he said.

“I’m blown away. I can’t believe it’s gotten such a solid reception,” he said. “We’re real happy.”

Riding the momentum from that success, the group already has played 20 festivals this summer while touring the continent from Quebec to California – “Everywhere that grows corn,” Isbell said.

Next up for the band will be a live recording culled from some of those festival performances.

“Our live show is a lot more energetic than any of the studio recordings we’ve done,” Isbell said. “And I want to get that on tape.”

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

If you go

What: Concert by the Ghost Town Blues Band

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 22

Where: Crash Music at the Aztec Theater, 104 N. Main Ave. in Aztec

Tickets: $15 at crashmusicaztec.com

For more information: Call 505-427-6748