When Marley's Ghost made its pilgrimage to Nashville last year to record with "Cowboy" Jack Clement, the band wasn't entirely sure what to expect.
The producer's credentials are dauntingly impressive: He recorded Jerry Lee Lewis' "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" in the '50s, and then in the '80s recorded U2's "When Love Came to Town" and "Angel of Harlem." And if all that weren't enough, Clement also wrote "Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog," which Johnny Cash recorded for his At Folsom Prison album.
Marley's Ghost is also no stranger to diversity, having built up a repertoire that includes, but is not limited to, five-part a cappella, reggae, bluegrass, Irish music and country-western tunes. Factor in three singer-songwriters, and you've got a band that can go off in pretty much any direction. But holing up in Clement's home studio to record Ghost Town (released earlier this month on the Sage Arts label) brought about changes that continue to reverberate.
"We're such an eclectic band, but this is much more focused," says Dan Wheetman, who sings and plays whatever seems necessary at any given time. "It's almost like a retro country album — it's much more steeped in country music as a whole — and, you know, it really works."
More surprising, though, were the after-effects of recording with Clement, a charismatic character whose guidance Wheetman characterizes as subtle but disarmingly effective: "The interesting thing about working with Jack is the way the quality of our playing has improved. Coming out of this project, the band now sounds better than it's ever sounded, and I don't know why that is. I don't have any explanation."
If his band's music is eclectic, Wheetman's career is even more so. The former Aspen resident, who now lives in Seattle, is also a playwright. It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues, which he co-wrote, premiered in Denver and ended up having a run on Broadway. His latest, Mama Hated Diesels, was co-written by Randal Myler and will make its world premiere tomorrow at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, where it'll continue through May.
As a musician, Wheetman has also toured extensively with Steve Martin and John Denver. (Denver's 'Rocky Mountain High," he says, wasn't about drugs, although he can't vouch for Peter, Paul & Mary's "Puff the Magic Dragon.") Still, the part of his résumé that most connects with Marley's Ghost, and especially with the new album, is his role as an original member of Robert Crumb's Cheap Suit Serenaders.
"Bob Armstrong and Al Dodge were friends of mine, and there was kind of a debutante party that they got hired for," recalls Wheetman. "So we all went down to the Goodwill and bought suits for ten dollars, and that's how the band got its name. And then we went and played old-timey jazz and string band stuff for this debutante party. It was a very surrealistic thing."
Crumb, a much-revered underground comics artist, returned the favor a few decades later by doing a portrait of Wheetman and his current bandmates for the cover of their 2006 Spooked album. That record was produced by another music legend, Van Dyke Parks, who started out as Brian Wilson's lyricist and more recently has worked as producer and arranger for Joanna Newsom, Bonnie Raitt and, yes, U2.
"Van Dyke is a dear friend and a completely different kind of producer," says Wheetman. "He's very hands-on. I mean, as you're in there working, he's just coming up with ideas and you're implementing them right there. And with Jack, it's very subtle. He's got this studio where everybody and his brother has recorded, and all these hits have come out. I think he was one of the first guys to build a studio in his house, and so it's very relaxed there. He deals a lot in spontaneity."
Ain't nothin' but Nashville
In addition to songs written by Clement, John Hartford, Warren Zevon and, of course, the band itself, Ghost Town's songwriting credits also include Shawn Camp, who frequently collaborates with Clement and has written hits for artists ranging from Josh Turner to Brooks & Dunn.
Wheetman had actually known Camp before he ever met Clement: "We did a version of It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues in Nashville, and Shawn was gonna do my part. He was gonna play the white guy part in it."
While logistics kept that from happening, the connection was renewed last year, and an accordion-driven rendition of Camp's "My Love Will Not Change" is among the new album's highlights.
Although he knows a lot of great musicians living and working there, Wheetman says he's not particularly enamored with the Nashville music industry itself.
"To me, it isn't country music; it's just pop music with somebody singing with a twang. You know, that's a blanket statement — there are great artists in every field, but you really have to ferret them out. And there's that whole corporate mentality: This is what's popular, so find me someone that does this and we'll put it out."
Still, through it all, Marley's Ghost keeps rattling along.
"We certainly have not chased fame in that sense," notes Wheetman. "We've not tried to make the band into something that it isn't."