Friday, April 24, 2015

Ten Questions With......Matt Isbell of Ghost Town Blues Band

Over the past few years, Memphis' Ghost Town Blues Band has received a lot of attention for their memorable live shows, which usually lead off with a Second Line entrance, and a couple of impressive appearances at the IBC, where they made the finals two years in a row, finishing 2nd in 2014.

GTBB has released three excellent recordings as well, including their latest, Hard Road to Hoe.  I can't imagine a blues fan not liking this disc.  The songs are great and the music is wonderful.  You get one track (the title cut) with instrumentation including a shovel and a broom, a couple of tracks featuring Memphis harp man Brandon Santini, one of which also features "backing vocals" from a dog ("My Doggy"), and other tracks that mix blues, blues rock, roots, Southern rock, country blues, and Hill Country blues, but the album is Memphis at it's core.  There is never a dull moment on this recording and it will definitely make you want to go see this band perform live.

Ghost Town Blues Band

Matt Isbell is the driving force behind GTBB, providing guitar and vocals and producing the albums (along with GTBB drummer/vocalist/broom-master Preston McEwen and Grammy-nominated engineer and producer Kevin Houston).  Isbell's "side job" draws almost as much interest as his band gig.  He creates cigar box guitars (check out Memphis Guitar Box), and recently was the subject of an interesting short film that focuses on the construction of these wonderful instruments (Once There Was A Cigar Box).  A couple of years ago, my brother started making cigar box guitars and he was the first one to actually tell me about Isbell, showing me some pictures of some of the guitars he'd made, then telling me about Ghost Town Blues Band and linking me to a few tracks online.

I always try to keep loyal FBF visitors informed about great new releases.  Trust me when I say that listening to Hard Road to Hoe will definitely make you want to know more about this band and will probably lead you to head over to Memphis Cigar Box to check out some of Isbell's craftsmanship as well.  However, before you do that, take a few minutes to see what Mr. Isbell had to say when he sat down with FBF for Ten Questions.  We thank him for taking the time to do so.

Ten Questions With......Matt Isbell

Friday Blues Fix:  What drove you to be a musician?

Matt Isbell:  I don't have any music in my family but we went to church every week and I always looked forward to singing along with the choir. I usually fell asleep in the pew but as soon as that organ started blasting, I jumped right up and sang along!

FBF:  What kind of music did you grew up listening to?

MI:  I didn't listen to a whole lot of music when I was young but my parents insisted on me taking piano lessons. The place where I took piano lessons had an old guitar sitting in the corner and I couldn't help but stare at that thing and daydream of how cool it would be to actually play guitar instead of this mean old piano that I couldn't get to play what I was hearing in my head.

FBF:  How old were you when you first started listening to the Blues? Who were the first Blues artists you listened to?

MI:  When I was about 13 years old my brother got a Jimmy Reed record and wore that thing out... He also had a few Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd records that never stopped playing. Over the years, I started to realize that bands like these were just ripping off blues artist from the past and that's how I began to become more interested in the Blues. When I was a little older, I got a job at a record label in Memphis called Inside Sounds and that's where I learned about Jesse Mae Hemphill and RL Burnside. From that point on I've been a huge fan of North Mississippi Hill Country music!

FBF:  Who are some of the musicians/songwriters that influence your music?

MI:  My favorite song writer of all time is Todd Snider!  He's a folk musician with a great knack for whimsical writing. When I was a kid I used his songs for an outline and then things began to grow from there. When I heard his first record, I said to myself, "That's what I want to do," and I started writing songs every day. They might've all been terrible back then but I'd rather be doing it myself than watching someone else.

Ghost Town Blues Band at the 2014 IBC in Memphis

FBF:  Ghost Town Blues Band made the finals at the IBC twice, finishing in 2nd place in 2014.....can you describe the general atmosphere of the IBC for those who have never attended?

MI:  On the first day you can always feel the nerves and excitement in the air! Beale Street is hoppin' with music everywhere. See, we are from Memphis and we get to see Beale Street on a daily basis. IBC is kind of like when the groundhog pokes his head out for the first time and you know winter is coming to an end on Beale. There's a lot of guys that come to town with a competitive vibe who you know are going to go home disappointed. The nature of the event is that you come to Memphis with the anticipation of making contacts and making a good impression and the rest will follow. I feel like a lot of people set themselves up for disaster when they think they are gonna win. I've been lucky enough to attend the IBC many times before we actually made it into the challenge. It's a giant blues showcase, not a competition!  I think that might be the reason that we got second place in 2014. We didn't show up with a winning attitude, we just played our show and met as many people as we could!


FBF:  What did the band decide to do differently on Hard Road to Hoe compared to your previous releases?

MI:  First, we decided to not use the record label that had released our previous albums. Secondly, we asked our fans through a crowdfunding website to help us pay for the recording and release. We cut the record to tape at Ardent Studios and tried to perform everything live to capture the energy that we muster up in the live shows. We did, however, use the same recording engineer (Kevin Houston), the same background vocalists and the same methodology as our previous recordings. It's not rocket science, it's music for the soul and we wanted to capture it without the constrictions and expectations of a label. The bottom line is that it is still an art form and we didn't want to let the business get in the way of what our final product would be and I think that shows....

FBF:  Can you describe your songwriting process? How long does it take you to put a song together? Can you tell us about how some of the songs on Hard Road to Hoe developed?

MI:  My songwriting process used to involve a bottle of whiskey and two packs of cigarettes... Some of my songs write themselves in a matter of minutes and other songs take a little bit of craft. "Tied My Worries to a Stone" was a song that wrote itself because it was autobiographical….same with the titletrack. “Big Shirley” came from a joke going around at the Rum Boogie Cafe on Beale and I just happened to capture the magic! A good song is just a slice of life put to a beat with a melody that you can whistle. I feel like we have a few of those on this record.

FBF:  How did you get into making cigar box guitars?

MI:  The cigar box guitars kind of come from my interest in the Hill Country music from North Mississippi.  I made one because I needed a backup guitar. I let a friend borrow it, so I made another. Now, I have made over 280 guitars out of cigar boxes, my grandmother's silverware chest, old gas cans and pretty much anything that isn't nailed to the ground. I don't watch TV and I've always like to keep myself busy, so cigar box guitar making just made sense!

FBF:  Do you find yourself looking at items and trying to figure out how to turn them into a guitar? What is the most unusual object that you used to make a guitar?

MI:  I love going to garage sales and estate sales and digging through people's old workshops and through their knickknacks to find items to use as bridges and other repurposed items for guitar parts. My grandmother's silverware chest is the most sentimental item that I've ever made a guitar out of but the most unusual item is an old hubcap. I always joke that I want to take a bedpan and make a guitar out of it just to call it a "Shitar" or a "Crapocaster." Like I said though, if it ain't nailed to the damn ground, I can make a guitar out of it!

FBF:  What is the coolest guitar that you have made?

MI:  I've made so many guitars over the years that I can't pinpoint one as being the coolest… They're kinda like my children and I would never pick one over the other.  Each guitar is a piece of art that is reminiscent of the feeling I was going through at that moment, but if I had to pick one, it would be the next one I make!  Once I make the guitar that part of my life is gone and the unknown future is what is more exciting to me than the past!

Marry Dog Isbell at work in the studio
FBF:  What's next for you in the band? Any plans to use Marry Dog Isbell on your next disc?

MI:  We have a huge summer lined up with over a dozen blues festivals and club dates connecting them. The band keeps getting better and our following keeps getting larger. We're lucky to be where we are right now, but I'd love to see our band touring in Europe and Asia.  As for my dog, she's nine years old and in dog years that's almost 70. Aren't most blues musicians in their prime around then?  I'm sure she just wants to hang on the couch but we will definitely try to get her back in the studio!

Dust The Dust (2010) - Inside Sounds Records

Dark Horse (2012) - Inside Sounds Records

Hard Road to Hoe (2015) - Self-released

Once There Was A Cigar Box (2014) - CD/DVD

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