Joel Mabus has always been sort of a musical freak of nature, one who is not easily pigeonholed or categorized. A brilliant songwriter and singer, he is also a gifted storyteller and a very adept instrumentalist on old-time banjo and bluegrass guitar. Check out his Banjo Monologues for the former and his great old song “Doc’sology,” a tribute to a classic Doc Watson guitar lick, for the latter.
So it should come as no surprise that Pepper’s Ghost & Other Banjo Visitations seems like a medley of his many and varied talents and interests. Nine of the thirteen tracks are solo banjo instrumentals. Some, such as “Dogs On The Davenport” and the title track, are original compositions that show how thoroughly he has synthesized the beautifully quirky stylistic elements that make clawhammer banjo music so mesmerizing. To these he’s added some great obscure discoveries, such as the nineteenth century medley “American Patrol” and a neoclassical piece with native American influences, “By the Waters Of Minnetonka.” Mabus also doesn’t hesitate to take on classics such as “Billy In The Low Ground,” although he’s at his best when he takes “Fire On The Mountain” and puts it through his own personal musical transmogrifier (for all us Calvin & Hobbes fans).
The effortless melding of traditional and modern that Mabus achieves on the banjo is something that he carries over skillfully to his songcraft. “Two Little Sisters” is a haunting extension of the vintage ballad often known as “Wind And Rain,” and he rewrites the folk song “Leather Wing Bat” and makes it a charming and moving fable that takes the listener through both his subtle turns of phrase and lovely re-harmonizing. “Panhandle Prairie” is a spooky tale of dissolution and regret that evokes the dusty grit that pervades the ballad’s setting. His sole vocal cover tune is the 1887 hymn “When They Ring The Golden Bells.” Never content to let a good story go untold, Mabus frames the song with the fascinating story of its creator, one that thus far has not grown tiresome on repeated listenings.
If you’ve somehow managed to avoid experiencing the many talents of Joel Mabus, Pepper’s Ghost & Other Banjo Visitations is an excellent entry point for appreciating how he’s managed to plant himself and thrive creatively at the crossroads of traditional American folk music. (Fossil Records, P.O. Box 306, Portage, MI 49081, www.joelmabus.com.)HK