Q&A with Memphis-based Matt Isbell (Ghost Town Blues Band) - intimate knowledge of blues, rock and improvisational jams

"The blues is life. Good or bad, anyway you cut it. It's what you've been served."

Ghost Town Blues Band:

Backstage Pack... At The Crossroads...

Beale Street’s latest success story and 2014 International Blues Challenge 2nd Place Winner wass Ghost Town Blues Band. Not your grandpa’s blues band, their live show has been captivating audiences in the U.S. and Canada with a second-line horn entrance, cigar box guitars and electric push brooms to Allman Brothers style jams and their rapping trombone player. Ghost Town Blues Band is a modern blues band with an intimate knowledge of both blues, rock and improvisational jams. At the same time, the band’s raw energy and intensity is reminiscent of some of the best blues that rock n' roll has ever offered. The band can turn on a dime from North Mississippi hill country grooves to classic electric urban blues and funk and Allman Brothers style jams. This Memphis-based, gritty, seven-piece has been touring the US and Canada since its inception in 2009, gaining a strong following within the Blues and Jam Band circuit. Hard Road To Hoe was the third release from Memphis, TN’s very own Ghost Town Blues Band.

The band is led by Matt Isbell, guitars, harmonica and vocals. The horn section of Kevin Houston, sax and vocals; and Suavo Jones, trombone and vocals gives them their New Orleans vibe. The seven piece band is rounded out by Taylor Orr, guitar and vocals; Tim Stanek, keyboards; Matt Karner, bass; and Preston McEwen, drums. Isbell is their primary songwriter. The band is famous for their exciting live performances. They capitalize on their New Orleans connection by including covers, and segueing in and out of them, like they do down in The Big Easy. New album “Backstage Pass” (2018) was recorded live at Lafayette’s Music Room in Memphis on July 29th, 2017. The album is produced by McEwen and co-produced by the band.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What does the blues mean to you?

The blues is life. Good or bad, anyway you cut it. It's what you've been served.

What do you learn about yourself from the Blues people? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

I had the honor of meeting Jessie Mae Hemphill before she passed away. We sat and talked for almost an hour and one of the smartest things that anyone ever told me came from her mouth. She said “Boy, you better be careful what you say” this was in reference to doing publicity for a rock ‘n’ roll record that I released in 2007. I don’t take those words lightly.

I also was honored with an introduction to the lake great B.B. King at the blues trail marker ceremony in front of the FedEx forum in Memphis. I asked Mr. King if he had any advice for young musician and he told me “never make your move too soon. “At the time, I had no idea that it was the title of one of his songs that I was later asked to perform a few years later by the Blues Foundation at his funeral and musical celebration on Beale Street.

It’s kind of funny for me to assume that these musicians and iconic Legends only advice for me was what not to do or what not to say. It comes from experience that maybe these folks didn’t want me to make some of the same mistakes they had made. It is with careful planning and certain level of maturity that I make all my decisions when it comes to the business of music. Knee-jerk reactions or what have not worked for me in the past. Trust me, I’m still learning.

How do you describe ghost town blues band's sound and songbook?

We definitely have a Memphis sound because… We are from Memphis. It's a very eclectic mix of cigarbox slide guitar, rock 'n roll drums, a horn section with pounding keys. Somebody once said we were like "electric cat fishing." That's when you take two leads and attach them to a battery then drop the wires in the water… It might not be the most traditional way of doing it but it definitely gets the job done and it's a lot more fun than the same old method. We do play cover songs here and there but we always change them up or "dip them in gravy and deep-fried them."

"Hopefully the younger audience will catch on and keep the blues thriving. We hope that new blues bands will carry the torch in an interesting way while still preserving the traditional aspects that make it 'blues'." (Photo: Ghost Town Blues Band)

How do you describe "Backstage Pass" songbook and sound? What has made you laugh from your live on July 29, 2017?

Backstage Pass is a great example of our live show. Our studio records have been a little more tame and methodical. The cool thing about the live record is that it is off-the-cuff and very energetic! During the song “Big Shirley” I make a joke about our trombone player “Suavo Jones” Breaking up with his girlfriend. I hold up a giant pair of women’s underwear and say that she didn’t break up with him and he didn’t break up with her but rather, “she ate him out of house and home.“

There are some other double entendre‘s and we generally have a great time on stage! It shows in the music and the song writing.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

We were fortunate off to receive an invite to play the Montreal Jazz Festival last summer! It was one of the largest audience is that I have ever played in front of and the icing on the cake was that we played two sets!

2014 we earned Second place at the international blues challenge. In the finals, I jumped off the stage at the Orpheum Theatre to play the guitar in the audience and on my way back up to the stage I had to leap over the orchestra pit. The jump was a little bit higher than I expected and I had leather shoes I’m so they didn’t have the grip that I needed. Luckily, one of the photographers gave me a push on my backside that was just enough to land me on the stage. The audience made a gasp that I will never forget!

How has the Blues influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Although I love spending time with my smoking hot wife and my cute little three-year-old girl, I definitely have the bug for traveling. I see the world a lot smaller than I used to. The Blues has given me the privilege of traveling across the U.S and to different countries to share my music and I have made some amazing relationships with people that live thousands of miles away.

"We definitely have a Memphis sound because… We are from Memphis. It's a very eclectic mix of cigarbox slide guitar, rock 'n roll drums, a horn section with pounding keys. Somebody once said we were like "electric cat fishing." That's when you take two leads and attach them to a battery then drop the wires in the water… "

What do you learn about yourself from the Blues people? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

I had the honor of meeting Jessie Mae Hemphill before she passed away. We sat and talked for almost an hour and one of the smartest things that anyone ever told me came from her mouth. She said “Boy, you better be careful what you say” this was in reference to doing publicity for a rock ‘n’ roll record that I released in 2007. I don’t take those words lightly.

I also was honored with an introduction to the lake great B.B. King at the blues trail marker ceremony in front of the FedEx forum in Memphis. I asked Mr. King if he had any advice for young musician and he told me “never make your move too soon. “At the time, I had no idea that it was the title of one of his songs that I was later asked to perform a few years later by the Blues Foundation at his funeral and musical celebration on Beale Street.

It’s kind of funny for me to assume that these musicians and iconic Legends only advice for me was what not to do or what not to say. It comes from experience that maybe these folks didn’t want me to make some of the same mistakes they had made. It is with careful planning and certain level of maturity that I make all my decisions when it comes to the business of music. Knee-jerk reactions or what have not worked for me in the past. Trust me, I’m still learning.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?

When we met the devil at the crossroads...

What do you miss nowadays from the blues of the past?

All of the true bluesman have passed on to the next world.

"We definitely have a Memphis sound because… We are from Memphis. It's a very eclectic mix of cigarbox slide guitar, rock 'n roll drums, a horn section with pounding keys." (Photo: Ghost Town Blues Band)

What are your hopes and fears for the future of blues?

Hopefully the younger audience will catch on and keep the blues thriving. We hope that new blues bands will carry the torch in an interesting way while still preserving the traditional aspects that make it "blues."

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

We would like to see genuine musicianship and creativity be embraced by the mainstream media and audiences.

What has made you laugh lately and what has touched you emotionally from the music circuits?

I play in a band with 6 clowns... I laugh everyday!

What are the lines that connect the legacy of the blues with soul/funk and continue to rock 'n roll and jam rock?

It all comes from the same front porch in Mississippi…

How did you start the idea of your cigar box guitar company, Memphis Cigar Box?

I made one cigarbox guitar and a friend liked it so much that he took it home. I made a second guitar and the same thing happened with another friend. Then, I made one from my grandmother's silverware chest that I still play today... The word spread and now I have made over 275 cigarbox guitars. I'm blessed to have made cigarbox guitars, bottleneck slides and other Delta instruments for a bunch musicians such as Joe Bonamassa, Cyndi Lauper, Eric Schenkman from "The Spin Doctors."

What touched (emotionally) you from the sound of cigar-box and slide guitar? What are the secrets of?

One of the coolest things about the cigarbox guitar, at least mine, since they are fretless and you have to use a Bottleneck slide, The notes are never exactly the same and there never exactly perfect. I find this to be a metaphor for life. If I walk to the market and take the same route every week, I don’t take the same stops and my path is slightly varied. Just like when I play song, the notes are not exactly the same every time even though I’m playing the same song or the same guitar lick.

"All of the true bluesman have passed on to the next world."

What is your most vivid memory fabricating a custom guitar?

Another cigar box guitar builder from Texas asked me to smash a guitar that he provided and I used the parts to make him a really funky Texas themed guitar that I had an automotive clutch ring, sink drain, sheriffs badge, and I even made one with a bullet shell for a bridge.

Do you know why the sound of slide and cigarbox guitar is connected to the blues?

In the 1800s when tobacco was just beginning to be taxed by the United States, the government forced companies to package there cigars in smaller boxes rather than big crates. These boxes made good acoustic resonators for simple stringed instruments such as victuals and what we call Diddley Bows today...

What is the impact of Blues music and culture to the racial, political, and socio-cultural implications?

Look, I was born in Memphis and Memphis has always been known as a melting pot. I was lucky to learn music from Black, White and Latino Musicians. Skip Pitts from STAX personally taught me the wah-wah lick from “Shaft.” He also told me that it’s not what color your skin is or what type of car you drive, it’s what comes out of your heart and soul that matters.

Dr. Martin Luther King breathed his last breath unfortunately in our great city. Not a day goes by where I don’t think about what he said and I try to lead by example through my actions, words and music. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” -Dr. Martin Luther King

Let's take a trip with a Time Machine, so where would you really want to go for a full day and why?

I'd like to visit the day of my death. I'd like to see who surrounds with me at the very end. That way I can always make sure to treat them right... I know it sounds dark but it would help me to see what's important to build the best future possible.

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