Ghosts of Johnson City

Tracking at Acadia July 2016

When The Ghosts of Johnson City come to the studio they always impress us with their ambitious goals, clear vision, and incredible work ethic. For this record, they tracked 15 songs (some have up to 12 parts) in just two days. We’re always inspired by whirlwind sessions like this, and in their wake we realized we had to add a pump organ to the studio collection after Erik coaxed full and lush tones from his George P. Bent Crown model.

Lush tones and ornamented melodies made mixing this album a treat– there is a lot of rich instrumentation behind each track. The bed of each being traditional Acoustic Guitar, Banjo, Upright Bass but Erik’s Baritone Uke really adds a nice contrast to traditional string band conventions. Plus experimenting with Pump Organ tones as well as background vocals really made this record shine in comparison to the first record.

We are so excited that their second album The Devil’s Gold is now available for y’all to feast your ears on. Written in the tradition of many of the songs found on their first record Am I Born to Die? (which features expansions from original recordings of old Appalachian tunes), this record is a natural continuation of the group’s trademark themes of love, loss, meaning, and mortality, and the need for humans to tell stories through song.  Consisting entirely of original material, their tracks draw inspiration from old letters, suicide notes, obituaries, and haunting photographs to unveil dark realities of people who chose to take their own lives or were killed in places you may never have known existed.

The songs were all written by the lead vocalist/guitar/banjo player Amos Libby, who shared a few thoughts about the record with us:

I reached deeply into the dark corners of the history of the United States to give a voice to the players in stories that rarely have been told. Song is the best way to do this. My favorite track is the title track. We all make the same journey at the end of our lives, and we all make it alone. The story of a sick miner writing a bitter but tender goodbye home to his wife from the back of a cold wagon in a Gold Rush camp is an image that hasn’t left my mind since I first started reading real examples of letters detailing goodbyes like this in historical archives. The cautionary nature of the song highlighting the consequences of greed and what the unbridled quest for profit does to people also resonates with me every time I sing the song. I also have such admiration for what my band mates did to ornament the song and give it the lush texture it has without sacrificing the dark thread of the story. -Amos Libby

One of our favorite tracks from the album is Evelyn McHale, a piece commemorating the suicide of Evelyn McHale in 1947 in what was known as “the most beautiful suicide,” due to an iconic photo taken shortly after she jumped from the Empire State building.

I found the image of Evelyn in death to be horrifying and beautiful; I didn’t know how to classify my reaction. When I read her story and her cryptic suicide note, I immediately put myself in her place and wondered what the difference between her and I is. I wondered what she was thinking in the elevator on the way up to the observation deck of Empire State building. Was she afraid? Did she feel despair or relief? Did she wonder what would happen after she died? These are questions we all have in the face of our own mortality or failures. I think that these themes are as powerful telling a contemporary story as they are with narratives that are much older, and it felt like this song belonged on this album with the rest. -Amos Libby

Ghosts of Johnson City also didn’t shy away from more personal narratives, ‘A Drowning at the Stillwater’ is actually the story of Mrs. Cole, the grandmother of Erik Winter, who plays pump organ for the group. In fact, a portrait of Mrs. Cole joined us all in the studio while they were recording the album. That track was the first one written for the album, Erik had sent Amos a copy of Mrs. Cole’s obituary, and he found the story around her death so darkly compelling and it moved him to start writing in this vein.  

You can join in for their release party February 11th at the Portland House of Music (HOME). They will be joined by fellow string band members Dark Hollow Bottling Company for that show. You can also pick up physical copies of the CD and 20-page booklet at Bull Moose Music and it is also available for digital download on all major platforms through CDBaby. This is definitely not the last you’ll hear from this group– they are going to keep telling stories in the voice of those who have gone unheard and to bring those voices to as many listeners as possible, so keep an eye out for more local shows and hopefully another record in late 2017.