Music » Music Features

Down the Hard Road

Ghost Town Blues Band’s Matt Isbell on the band's latest album.



Ghost Town Blues Band isn't just a group of blues enthusiasts on the local nightclub circuit. Since forming six years ago, the band has been recognized by the International Blues Challenge (twice), toured the country numerous times, and been praised by blues societies nationwide. The band crowd-funded their latest album, Hard Road to Hoe, but still enlisted six-time Grammy-nominated producer Kevin Houston to man the controls. We sat down with chief songwriter Matt Isbell to find out more about the band's latest album, recording live animals in the studio, and their extensive summer tour, which includes a stop at Beale Street Music Fest.

Flyer: Where did you get the idea to open the album with a recording of a push broom?

Matt Isbell: I make cigar box guitars, and I've learned over the years that not everyone has $300 to spend on a cigar box guitar. I've learned to make smaller things like shakers and other cheap homemade instruments and somehow that has evolved into using a broom as an instrument. Basically, I just take a door buzzer and reverse the polarity of it, and it becomes a little tiny speaker for the broom. It was kind of a cool idea that actually worked, so we decided to mess with it in the studio. We use the broom live now too, and it definitely gets some weird comments from sound guys when they see us plugging it in on stage. It's paired with a cigar box guitar on the opening track, which made a lot of sense.

How did you hook up with producer Kevin Houston?

We've done every record with him. He's the North Mississippi Allstars' engineer and he worked under Jim Dickinson. He grew up with the Dickinson boys and he learned everything he knows from that family. Kevin has a real good approach as a producer and he's amazing to work with. We recorded the latest album on tape, and he was all about us getting technical with stuff like the push broom. He looks at the studio like a giant playground and that makes it really easy to work with him.

What does the expression "hard road to hoe" mean to you? Is that an expression you've heard a lot before?

The original saying is "hard row to hoe," and I guess it's an old farmers saying. I changed it up a little bit because we aren't farmers, we're drivers. We drive around from town to town playing music, so it applies to what we do as a band every night.

The album starts and ends with some pretty heavy lyrical content. Was that a conscience decision?

Nah, not really. The last album was a lot softer as far as lyrics go, but I think each album is a reflection of my life at the point it was recorded. Our next album will probably be a little bit more jovial, but that's not where I was when we made this latest record. I lost my mom recently and my dad has Parkinson's and I guess that title track is about me losing my mentors, so to speak. I didn't mean for it to be really deep or anything, but that's just how stuff comes out sometimes. I've been sober for over nine months, but I still have a lot of experience from drinking and that comes out on the last song "Road Still Drives the Same." A lot of things have changed since we started this band, and I think that's reflected on this record too.

How else is Hard Road to Hoe different than your last album Darkhorse?

We didn't have a piano player or a horn section when we made Darkhorse, but we wrote that album so that we could grow into having one. The 2012 album was kind of a blueprint for what the future of our band would be, and now we have those extra members and are writing songs with them as a full band.

Tell me more about the decision to record your dog on the track "My Doggy."

I figured out that my dog can sometimes howl in a certain pitch depending on how I'm singing or what I'm playing. I have an old Wurlitzer organ that she will howl to, and she also howls when someone plays the harmonica. As soon as I figured that out I was like "we have to get this dog in the studio." She's just a rescue dog, but she can sing.

The band is going to be touring almost all summer long in support of Hard Road to Hoe. How do you prepare mentally for a trip that long?

Man, honestly I look at each tour date like it's just another show. We've been doing this band for more than six years now and I don't take it for granted, but there's not a whole lot of mental preparation that goes in it for me at this point. People are honestly really excited to see good music from Memphis no matter where we play. When we play Canada, we get treated like rock stars because they don't get to see bands like us very often. Pretty much anywhere we go we get treated like we are a lot bigger than we really are.

What are you most looking forward to in regards to playing Beale Street Music Fest again this year?

Just being asked to play again is a huge honor. That was the music fest to end all music fests when I was a kid. I didn't know there was anything other than that - I thought that was the biggest music fest in the world. For us to play the Blues Tent and the same stage as some of my favorite childhood musicians, it's still surreal.

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