From the moment Ghost Town Blues Band enters the room, playing “When The Saints Go Marching In” on horns and driving the beat on drums, audiences instantaneously realize they’re in for something special.
Based out of Memphis and described by front man Matt Isbell as a “group of misfits,” they’re truly far more than that. Comprised of relatively young men in blues terms and coming from all walks of life and widely varying musical tastes, they’re an organization that functions as one living, breathing organism. They meld together onstage to produce sounds that touch on everything from straight-ahead blues, Hill Country blues and deep Memphis soul to hip-hop and powerful reinterpretations of Allman Brothers and Beatles classics that would make the originators smile.
Recently named blues band of the year at the Tennessee Music Awards, they apparently have driven a stake into what Isbell as termed tongue-in-cheek as being the Susan Luccis of the blues world.
Like the former star of ABC-TV’s All My Children who was nominated for daytime Emmy Awards almost two dozen times before taking home a trophy for Outstanding Leading Actress in a soap opera, Ghost Town also unintentionally – and undeservedly — made it a habit of being a runner-up. They made to the finals of the International Blues Challenge twice and received multiple Blues Blast Music Awards nominations – three this year alone – but, until now, consistently returned home empty-handed.
All the while, Ghost Town has consistently been oblivious as they’ve delivered wave after wave of heart- and foot-pounding music that leaves audiences exhausted but still asking for more. Their most recent CD, a live set entitled Backstage Pass, climbed to the No. 4 spot on Billboard’s blues album chart.
Although founded by Isbell, who fronts the band using six-string and homemade three-string cigar-box guitars, doubles on harmonica and delivers most of the vocals with a distinctive, whisky-soaked voice, he makes it a point to insist that no one in the group, including himself, is a star and that their success is the result of the partnership they enjoy.
The Memphis native is basically a self-taught musician. “I took a guitar class in college,” he says. “But the instructor was a friend and told me dirty jokes more than anything else. I guess he knew I was already playing out, and didn’t want to change my old habits.”
His earliest musical influences came through the classic rock records he heard because of his older brother, not the sounds that fill the air in the city that served as blues’ first home after moving up from the Delta. He took piano lessons at age 10, but the six-string drew him like a moth to a flame.
“My teacher’s husband had a guitar sittin’ in the corner,” he recalls, “and I just kept starin’ at that thing. Finally, one day, she made the mistake of lettin’ me pull it out. I opened that guitar case — and it was over!
“I had a little three-quarter size acoustic guitar in the house. It had three strings, and the other three tuning pegs were busted off. I kinda tuned that thing to an open chord and played around with it as much as I could after that.”
It’s a technique he still uses today on cigar-box.
Isbell was barely into his teens when the thought of making his life’s work music took root. It came through exposure to Oregon native Todd Snider — a young, blond singer-songwriter not unlike himself – who was starting his career on Beale Street.
Snide was later discovered by a member of Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band, worked as an assistant to John Prine and then as Buffett’s opening act before becoming a superstar in the folk/roots/alternative scene.
Matt’s initial encounter with him came a year before the release of Snider’s first major album, the highly acclaimed Songs For The Daily Planet. “He was playin’ in what was a terrible, dive-y bar I wouldn’t play today if I didn’t have to,” Matt recalls. “I was enthralled. He was a blond-headed dude in blue jeans — like me — and with bare feet, and I said: ‘Oh, wow! This could be me!
“All I thought about after that was gettin’ a real guitar. I was still playin’ that little three-string, and I had a harmonica. Todd wore a harmonica on a rack. I got a coat hanger and fashioned a little harmonica holder out of it for myself. I rocked that thing all the time — until I put out my first record.”
Isbell received his first six-string, an acoustic $100 Goya dreadnaught, on his 12th birthday and taught himself how to play every Snider song on Daily Planet. “I wore that record out tryin’ to figure out how to play all the G-C-D, all the simple stuff, and play around with it on harmonica,” he says.
Matt formed his first band, The Blind Venetians, along with current Ghost Town lead guitarist Taylor Orr in high school. The son of a chart-topping ‘60s rocker, Orr has played a major role in Isbell’s life since their first meeting as both a guitarist and songwriting partner. He’s been instrumental in leading Isbell from folk/roots to the other musical traditions they deliver today.
“He came over to audition, and we asked him if he knew the material,” Isbell recalls. “He said ‘no,’ but asked us: ‘Do you guys know ‘Blue Sky’ from the Allman Brothers?’ We said ‘no,’ so he said: ‘Let me teach it to you real quick.’
“He showed us the chords and proceeded to play every single note from the solo perfectly. We were like: ‘You’re in the band!’”
They performed at a school talent show, and the reception they received was overwhelming. As Isbell says today, they fulfilled every teenagers dream, going from social outcasts to some of the most popular kids in their class. They recorded one record when they were 15 and another two years later, but disbanded when everyone went their separate way after graduation.
Orr moved to Colorado, and Isbell enrolled in college. After losing touch for a while, they eventually reconnected and spent more than a decade writing songs together long distance over the phone and internet. While Taylor was out West, Matt spent time in a rock band before a seven-year stint in a cover band, a period in which he pushed himself to learn guitar parts that weren’t in his comfort zone.
“I was learning triads and gettin’ my chops together,” he remembers. “But when my mom passed away, I kinda realized that life’s pretty short and maybe I shouldn’t be wastin’ my time playin’ other people’s music.”
Matt was a student in the University Of Memphis music business program in 2007 when he released and album, Rock Lotto, under his own name as part of a senior project and it into the running for Grammy consideration – not for the original songs it contained, but for the packaging, which included multiple gambling images on the front and a scratch-off format on the back. You’d have to use a coin and scratch the surface to reveal the song lineup as well as a MySpace link through which you could download another bonus track.
And he polished his R&B skills while a member of the Stax Music Academy SNAP! program. Primarily targeted for people much younger than himself, it was designed as an after-school project through which youngsters could learn life skills while developing their musical talents.
Isbell’s invitation came about purely by accident while was working a side job as a car valet for a private event at Memphis’ Pink Palace Museum.
“There were these two black dudes in three-piece suits walkin’ out and talkin’, sayin’: ‘How come it’s so hard to find a good young white guitar player like Steve Cropper to fit into our little program?’” Matt recalls. “I popped up and introduced myself, gave ‘em my card, told ‘em I was a guitar player and asked ‘em what they were talkin’ about.”
To make a long story short, they invited him to audition at Lemoynt Owen College the next Saturday. To prepare himself and learn the music, he practiced by playing along with the Stax Gold CD all week and got the gig, becoming the old man of the group at age 21 alongside kids barely into their teens.
“Three weeks later, I was playin’ at the Orpheum Theater,” he says. “We even auditioned for Justin Timberlake’s record label at the time, and everyone went on to do bigger things.”
The bass player, Dywane Thomas Jr., better known now by the name MonoNeon, who was 12 at the time, eventually went on to play with Prince. One of the most important artists in experimental music today, he’s worked with everyone from the Bar-Kays and Ne-Yo to avant garde trendsetter Ghostnote and Corey Henry’s Funk Apostles. And he also occupied the bass spot in Ghost Town for a while.
The seeds for Ghost Town were planted in 2008, shortly after the passing of Isbell’s mother. He’d been working as a solo singer-songwriter, but the blues beckoned. “Everything that I was doing was three chords anyway,” he says. “Very basic. I was just tellin’ stories. And most of my tunes were ‘woe is me’ anyway.”
A couple of other young musicians on Beale caught Isbell’s attention as he formulated plans to put a band together. One was Suavo Jones, a permanent fixture in Ghost Town since the beginning. An extremely energetic trombone player who’s soft-spoken and introspective off-stage, he consistently drew and held crowds as he busked on the street. Another was Jeremy Powell, a keyboard player who frequently played for tips in Handy Park with a very distinct sound on the organ. He’s gone on to work with Eddie Palmieri, Southern Avenue, Acme Jazz Garage, Ghetto Love Sugar and others.
“We were the young cats on Beale,” Matt says.
They started jamming, filled out their lineup and never stopped. Both the band’s eventual name and their now trademark second-line entrance came about after their initial inability to draw a crowd. “Nobody was in the club half the time when we’d play,” he remembers. “We’d say: ‘It’s a ghost town in here. We must be the Ghost Town Blues Band.’
“We were always tryin’ to find a way to get more people into the club, and all of us besides Suavo played horn on the side. One day we decided: Let’s get on the street and do something. We took out our horns and drums and played as we walked down Beale. That’s how our second-line was born.”
Although the band delivers multiple musical stylings, don’t expect much more second-line work when they do take the stage. As Isbell explains: “I played a little trombone in high school, but only enough to annoy the neighbors and my parents.
“We’re definitely a hodgepodge of different backgrounds, and most of us have all been primarily sidemen. That’s why it isn’t Matt Isbell And Ghost Town Blues Band. We all bring something fresh and different to the table. Suavo has the hip-hop background. I come from the folk/singer-songwriter background. Taylor brings that Southern rock and jam band kinda thing to it.”
After spending time in Littleton, Fort Collins and Denver, Colo., where he worked in multiple bands, Orr returned to Memphis to assume Ghost Town guitar duties about two years ago, finally giving in to requests that Isbell had been making for more than a decade.
“I learned how to play guitar standing beside him,” Matt says. “Obviously, he moved away and worked real hard at it, and I’m more of a jack-of-all-trades. I joke about that on stage every night. We trade licks and I always mention that I should have taken better notes.”
But the band’s far more than this trio. The other three current members also impart their own imprint on the overall sound.
With his bushy beard and laid-back appearance, bass player Matt Karner’s physical appearance might trick some folks into thinking he just emerged from the backwoods. In reality, he’s a native of northern New Jersey who grew up only a few miles from Midtown Manhattan. He’s deeply rooted in the jazz tradition.
“He’s our midnight driver,” Isbell says. “He likes to get behind the wheel for our long overnight hauls. He listens to jazz when he’s driving, exposing all of us to sounds we might not have heard before.”
The two newest members of the group – drummer Andrew McNeill and keyboard player Cedric Taylor – add even more variety.
The youngest member at 24, McNeill is an old soul, Isbell says. “If you listen to him, you’d never believe he’s as young as he is. We went into the studio last week to cut our next record, and he sounded fantastic, probably the most solid of all of us.”
Lean and leaning slightly to his left behind the kit, he plays in a style reminiscent of a ‘60s jazz percussionist. Once again, however, looks are deceiving. “He brings that Stax – Al Jackson vibe,” Matt says. “And he’s wa-a-ay into Prince, too, so he brings that funk to us, too.”
And like most of the keyboard players who’ve preceded him, Taylor comes from a strong church background, which comes through loud and strong as he attacks the keys on his B3. A stylish dresser, which definitely sets him apart from his bandmates, he plays in a powerful, two-fisted approach, and his gospel training comes through loud and clear.
“Most of us didn’t feel at home in a lot of the bands we were playin’ in,” Isbell says. “I definitely feel like this band was born in the wrong generation. We kinda all found each other on Beale, which was a nice incubator for us to develop our sound.
“When we started this thing in 2009, it definitely was a rock-influenced blues band, playing everything from the Creedence Clearwater version of Screaming Jay Hawkins’ ‘I Put A Spell On You’ to a lot of original material, too. Our first album, Dust The Dust, had only five covers on it.”
Even though Orr was still in Colorado, doing his own thing, his influence was still being felt back home in Memphis. “By the time we got to our third record, Hard Row To Hoe, which came out in 2014, we opened it with one of Taylor’s originals, Another Lover,” Isbell says. “He sent it to me in one form, and I just gave it a more Memphis vibe.
“That’s the case with most of the tunes we write together. He brings me great songs all the time. And he’s humble enough to let me be a good editor. Most people are good at seein’ something and figuring out a way to make it better. But not a lot of people out there have the restraint to sit back and let somebody else manipulate it to be what it will finally be. Taylor’s the exception.”
That CD did well, providing traction for Ghost Town to book bigger and better gigs. And it didn’t hurt that the band earned runner-up honors in the International Blues Challenge that year, too. But like most everything else in the band’s history, that came after a struggle, too.
They tried and failed three times to be the Memphis Blues Society IBC representative, finishing third once and second twice in 2010, 2011 and 2012 competitions. But Isbell has no hard feelings. “We weren’t the established act — just the new guys,” he says. “We didn’t feel like we were owed anything. We just could never quite break through.”
Things started changing for the better when Ghost Town played the 2012 Crossroads Blues & Heritage Festival in Rosedale, Miss., a small town along the river about an hour to the south. It was sponsored by Rosedale’s Crossroads Blues Society, which was run by Will Pierce.
“Will kinda called the festival his IBC competition,” Isbell recalls. “I guess we were the crowd favorite, and he invited us to represent them in the 2013 IBCs.”
Ghost Town made it to the finals that year, finishing as a runner-up to Floridian Selwyn Birchwood, and finally beat out the competition to represent the Memphis society in 2014. Even though they’d been using their second-line entrance at clubs, they made their IBC debut with it when they made it to the finals once again.
But try as they might, however, they simply couldn’t get past Mr. Sipp, finishing as the bridesmaids as he walked away with the trophy. “Mr. Sipp definitely deserved to win,” Matt says. “He had much more of a blues package than we did.”
And although it would have been nice to capture top honors, like most competitors, Ghost Town knew that the IBCs are far more than a one-shot deal. They’re just as valuable for exposure, networking and future gigs the competition provides. After all, some of the biggest names in the business and several rising stars — including Susan Tedeschi, Rob Blaine, French harmonica champion Nico Wayne Toussaint, Betty Fox, Shakura S’Aida and Laurie Morvan, among others – have failed in the finals to win over the judges.
With as many as 250 bands traveling to Memphis for the event annually, the IBCs create a family atmosphere for most participants, and Matt has been helping competitors out in recent years by running what’s basically a courtesy jitney service to get them to and from the airport.
“I noticed how a lot of these guys were complaining about how difficult it was getting their band and their instruments into a cab,” Isbell says. “They were having to split up and use separate cabs to get everything to their hotel from the airport, and spending an arm and a leg in order to do it.”
It was a real hardship because most are traveling on a shoestring budget at best, often relying on fundraisers and benefits back home to make the trip. A few years ago, Matt started taking advance reservations for pickups, charging a modest $5 a member to haul them and their equipment to their hotel. The service became an overnight success.
Although there have been some hiccups along the way — with delayed flights and schedule changes, it’s become so popular that, in 2018, he and his cohorts needed three vans and trailers to get the job done, and he’s already been fielding calls since before Thanksgiving for the competition that occurs in January.
And more often than not, passengers won’t realize they’re being transported by a fellow musician who’s lived the same experience they’re going through. “It’s my small way of helping the musicians and their blues family out,” Isbell says. “We don’t discriminate. I’ve met a lot of folks and gotten a lot of gigs doin’ it. It’s a lot of fun.
“Memphis has been good to me. I’m lucky to have been born here, and I feel like an ambassador. To be a part of the blues world, it’s a blessing for me to be able to share some of the positivity that’s been shared with me.”
In the years since they last entered the IBCs, Ghost Town has built bigger and bigger audiences, served for a tour as the opening act for Steve Miller, played major festivals across the U.S. and booked 12 tours overseas in 2017 and 2018 alone.
Off stage, Isbell has also become a prolific and popular cigar-box guitar maker. As founder of Memphis Cigar Box Company, he’s produced more than 450 instruments since 2010, fashioning them out of everything from antique boxes to his grandmother’s old silverware chest and even an old bedpan, an instrument he’s dubbed the “shitar” or “crap-a-caster” because it plays just like it sounds. He’s also made a lap steel guitar out of a railroad tie, cutting it down with a chainsaw, and is currently building another out of an Erector set.
“I pride myself as being a musician who builds guitars,” he says. Like the first guitar he ever played, they’re all constructed with three strings. “Subconsciously, I think it came from that,” Matt says, noting that most other builders use four strings.
His instruments have found their way into the hands of pros and amateurs alike, and his clientele has included Eric Schrenkman of The Spin Doctors, Cyndi Lauper, Michael Leonhart of Steely Dan and Joe Bonamassa, among others. The winner of the solo/duo competition at the IBCs now receives one as part of his prize package.
All of the guitars are fretless and designed to play using a slide, which created a side product. At last count, he makes about 200 slides a month, and are available at the Stax Museum and at Memphis Music Records And Tapes on Beale. Everything is manufactured in Matt’s home garage.
Ghost Town’s latest, live album was a treasure for fans of the Allmans and jam bands, but Isbell says the next one, which is currently under production, will return the group to its roots. “It’s going to be a lot like our second record, which was very roots-oriented,” he says. “There are definitely some straightforward blues songs on there, but we’ve got the whole Memphis vibe, and there are a lot of rules to be broken yet.
“It’ll still have a lot of horns, a lot of B3, a lot of twin guitar parts – and as good of songwriting as me and Taylor can come up with, but not as many tongue-in-cheek songs. We’ve done a lot of humorous songs in the past. But I’ve gone through a lot in the past few years. I lost my dad to Parkinson’s, and my mom suddenly to a stroke. My views on life and my songwriting have changed a little bit as a result.”
One thing remains constant, though: Isbell’s gratitude for the reception he and his band of merrymakers have received from the blues community.
“I’m proud to be a part of the blues scene and that we’re allowed to give our interpretation of the blues and to be an on ramp for the younger generation to become interested in the music,” he says. “I don’t think the blues has to be sad and slow. It can tell many different stories and speak to many different people in many different ways.”