Portland's Ghosts of Johnson City romp through town to kick off their new album, The Devil’s Gold, an epic collection of 15 songs that celebrates the near-forgotten lives of classic American archetypes.
The February 11 concert at the Portland House of Music and Events will showcase the band's rich, evocative music, with its stories populated with gold miners, settlers, sailors, and lumberjacks. Present in the album is tragedy and poignancy and a depth of personal insights into the rugged past.
Amos Libby — founder, lead vocalist, and guitar and banjo player — teaches Middle Eastern and Indian music at Bates, Bowdoin, and Colby colleges. He also plays in the Okbari Middle Eastern Ensemble, but is now steeped in headlining the Ghosts’ with Douglas Porter on guitar, banjo, and vocals; Erik Neilson on baritone ukulele and vocals; Erik Winter on pump organ; and Ian Riley on upright bass.
Recently, they added Sarah Mueller on violin and Bethany Winter on vocals, who “bring a different texture to everything we do,” Libby says. “They have really changed us a lot.”
The band’s second album is a follow-up to the critically acclaimed Am I Born to Die?, a collection of rare covers which were reconstructed and interpreted in a current vein. Libby rewrote the melodies for that album, but all the lyrics (and most of the music) were traditional. They formed the seed for the new record, for which he wrote all the music and lyrics, and the resulting effort is a full bloom of Appalachian music and the stories of oft-overlooked ancestors.
The material for the new work was mined from various archives, letters back and forth from men in search of gold and their hopeful wives and families back home. The album crosses the country, collecting musical gems along the way. One song dips into Winter’s family history and relates a tragic drowning.
“You can find historical letters that range ones written during the Gold Rush and the Civil War,” Libby said. “Some of the songs are based on actual events that occurred. Others are how I imagined these people as they struggled to survive early America.”
All 15 songs were recorded and mixed in two days at Acadia Recording Company in Portland. They intended the concentrated music marathon to give the new release an album concept and capture the essence of these myriad characters, and the result is an overwhelming success.
The album begins with the mournful and plaintive “Jordan’s Golden Shore,” which features a tinge of Irish harmonies. Next, comes the title track, based on letters written by doomed gold miners sending word to their loved ones about their prospects for fortune. It’s about greed and people losing their moral compass in the space of looking for profit.
“To Rest in California” is an answer to “Devil’s Gold,” inspired by letters written to the miners, imagined from the point-of-views of the wives, much more pragmatic and cautionary.
“I remember reading the miners’ letters (of which, many more are accessible) and wondering what the letters going to these miners were like,” Libby said.
All of the songs read like classic short stories of Americana, and listeners would do well to take their time with the album, reading along with the lyrics for a virtual history lesson.
“When we started this, I didn’t know what it would look like,” Libby said, “But telling stories in music is one of the oldest things people have done.”
One song is a powerful addition to Maine folklore, drawing on a band member’s personal family history. “A Drowning at the Stillwater” is about Nora “Mabel” Henderson Cole, drowned in the Stillwater River in Old Town in 1911, leaving behind her husband and young daughters, Flo and Frances. Cole was Winter’s great-grandmother. This song tells the story of that sad day and the mystery surrounding Cole’s death. “The portrait that graces the inside cover of this album is that of Mrs. Cole, and we hope that she rests in eternal peace wherever she may be,” the album’s liner notes read.
“He grew up in Old Town,” Libby said of Winter. “The photos in the center of the (album’s) booklet are at the spot at the Stillwater where she disappeared. Erik had a copy of his great-grandmother’s obituary and knew the family lore around that tragedy. It inspired me to write a song about it.”
“These Last Fond Words of Mine” is a sort of sea shanty in reverse, this time offering a landed man’s lament over his lost love in her watery grave. “The Northern Timber” is a wonderful anthem, conjuring The Mallett Brothers Band and their recent album of 20th-century Maine working songs, The Falling of the Pine. And “The Murder of the Pioneer Preacher of Deadwood” has all the visual elements of a great music video, something the band plans in the near future, depending on the album’s reception.
Getting the album down to 15 songs may have been Libby’s biggest challenge.
“In the last year, I’ve written about 50 of these songs,” he said. “It was difficult for us to decide how to populate this world, where all of these people are struggling through their own circumstances. The end for all of us is the same journey, and we all take that journey alone. It was tough to pare it down. I know it’s asking a lot of the listener to take such a long trip, but it made sense. It felt like the right world.”
The band’s name comes from Libby’s biological father, “a musician who was out of my life from a pretty young age,” he says. “In the summertime, after he left Maine, we would spend summers in Johnson City, Tennessee. He would play gigs there. A lot of my childhood memories are of him playing folk music. He died when I was 25. I flew down for the funeral. Since then it was in my mind, someday I would pick up the musical thread that he left.”
The Ghosts of Johnson City have done just that, and the resulting creation is an all-covering canvas of American lives, letters, and songs. To spend time in the album’s company is like getting the history lesson too many of us forgot.
The Ghosts of Johnson City
Sat. Feb 11 at 9 p.m.
Portland House of Music & Events
25 Temple St., Portland
with Dark Hollow Bottling Company
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