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Songs We Love: Josh Abbott Band, 'Ghosts'

Josh Abbott Band.
C. Taylor Crothers
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Courtesy of the artist
Josh Abbott Band.

What kind of musician makes a concept album? The stereotype might be that this is the domain of a prog rocker or George Clinton-style funk master in a satin cape; but in fact, long-players with unified themes have always been popular in country music. Willie Nelson's Western noir Red Headed Stranger may be the best known, but Johnny Cash did at least a half-dozen with themes ranging from train songs to the plight of the Native American; Porter Wagoner did the same a decade or so later, touching on dark themes like alcoholism and prison life, and his frequent singing partner, Dolly Parton, joined in with song suites about rural Tennessee life and urban working women. Marty Stuart has kept the epic feel of those classic artists alive in his many concept albums — most recently, the double set Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Now Texas touring favorite the Josh Abbott Band adjust the form for the kids (and the reluctantly maturing adults) of today.

Abbott's brilliant move was to create a deeply personable and utterly relatable song-set that also brings into the light what's most powerful about so-called "bro-country": its focus on love and sex in an era of changing gender dynamics. In a way, he's harkening back to the very first country concept album, Jean Shepard's 1956 tearjerker Songs of a Love Affair. Abbott's Front Row Seat was inspired by the breakup of the singer-songwriter's own marriage to his college sweetheart, which occurred simultaneously with the beginning and end of short-lived major-label record deal. (Abbott has made his career as an independent artist and hugely popular touring act.) Its arc begins in giddy tipsiness and ends in contemplative quietude, with room for a little cheating, much heartache, and some self-examination along the way.

/ Courtesy of the artist
/
Courtesy of the artist

"Ghosts" was the first song Abbott wrote for the album, working with the young Nashville songwriter Ruston Kelly. He's the first to admit that he wept when he first tried to sing the first-person account of a crushed heart in the studio. The video, by filmmaker Phillip Guzman, recreates that moment in somber black and white. There are no trucks and no margaritas — just plain, strong emotion in the faces of a subdued Abbott and his band. Like all of Front Row Seat, "Ghosts" grapples with the fact that life is anything but just a party. That's a concept country music has always foregrounded, and one that Abbott and his bandmates artfully resurrect.

Front Row Seat is out on Nov 6 on Pretty Damn Tough.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.
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