In the press release sent out with the advance copies of Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions, the venerable Marty Stuart says, “I found traditional country music to be on the verge of extinction. It’s too precious to let slip away. I wanted to attempt to write a new chapter.”
Stuart is right that it’s too precious to let slip away, but immensely wrong in claiming that it’s on the verge of extinction—and anointing himself as its savior is a bit presumptuous when there are, in fact, legions of talented artists (in Nashville, in Austin and all over the world) working to keeping the various (and numerous) strands of traditional country music alive.
“New chapters” are written every day by artists like Dale Watson, Miss Leslie and Brennen Leigh (just to name a few), so Ghost Train is no salvation record—just one cog in gear that’s already turning, and one more spoke in a wheel that keeps rolling along.
Of course, Stuart is in typically fine technical form here. One of country music’s most talented and ambitious artists—as well as one of the genre’s preeminent historians—he demonstrates a deep dedication to this project’s mission by treating these 14 classic-sounding songs with due reverence, while performing them with expected deftness and masterful precision.
And when it comes to production, Ghost Train (Engineered by Mick Conley, who also worked on Kathy Mattea’s Coal), possesses a crispness that you just won’t find on the underfunded records put out by many of traditional country’s most noteworthy purveyors—most of whom have tiny recording budgets and limited access to studio space and equipment.
Certainly, if traditional country music needed saving, Stuart wouldn’t be the wrong man to turn to. His grasp on the collection of styles he presents here as “traditional country” is firm; had album opener “Branded” been released 35 years ago, it might well have been remembered today as one of the “outlaw” era’s finest, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more precise example of the country recitation than “Porter Wagoner’s Grave.”
“Branded” was written by Stuart, but it sounds like it was clipped from the Waylon Jennings songbook. Ultimately, that’s emblematic of a weakness found throughout Ghost Train. As well as Stuart performs each of these tracks, they often sound more like very specific attempts to recreate a certain type of song than they sound like outstanding country songs in and of themselves. Indeed, these songs often sound like the ghosts of songs before, not new creations with spirits and souls of their own.
The album features a train song, a spiritual talker, a patriotic ode to “the working man” and a mournful heartbreak ballad, among other canonical themes, but each of these is more notable for the statement it makes about a particular slice of country music history than as a new piece of music.
That fact leaves Stuart often sounding like the late man to the party. Despite his stellar technical execution, he never really takes full ownership of these songs. “Branded” leaves us wishing we could hear Jennings or Haggard sing it, while all we can hear in “Hangman” is the songwriting voice of Johnny Cash.
Stuart co-wrote “Hangman” with Cash just four days before the legendary singer died, and it’s easily the highlight of Ghost Train. The story of a hangman (executioner) who can’t remember the number of men he’s put to death (and who uses alcohol and “dope” to numb the pain and guilt of doing so) the song is more than a notch above the rest of the album’s material. Cash’s influence is palpable in the clear story, engaging character and deeply resonant hook.
Those elements are largely missing elsewhere on the album. Perhaps lost in matters of style and process, Stuart’s songwriting on Ghost Train fails to provide much that’s especially memorable or engaging. And clocking in at nearly 45 minutes, it begins to bore around the halfway point.
Of course, it doesn’t help that the halfway point is “Hangman,” which leaves everything after sounding elementary by comparison.
One thing that is never boring about Ghost Train is the incredible steel guitar work featured throughout the album. Performed, at various points, by an all-star cast of Ralph Mooney, Gary Carter, Tommy White, Robby Turner, Kayton Roberts and Fred Newell, the depth and quality of steel here is second to none.
Ghost Train isn’t likely to be the album that single-handedly revives mainstream interest in classic country music styles and themes, but it is an enjoyable addition to the absolutely not-extinct line of modern, but traditional-sounding country records—one that sounds better than most, though it contains only a couple of truly outstanding songs.