“Ghost in This House”
Shenandoah / Alison Krauss & Union Station
Written by Hugh Prestwood
This is a tale of two songs presented as one, both in spirit and musical form.
The first paradox of “Ghost in This House” stems from its writer, Hugh Prestwood, a self-described slow, methodical writer who tended to write one song a month – one at a time. He never lived in Nashville, so his most well-known writing cuts – including Kathy Mattea’s “Asking Us to Dance,” Randy Travis’ “Hard Rock Bottom of Your Heart,” and Trisha Yearwood’s “The Song Remembers When,” among others – were penned solely by him, and allowed him to sit with the melody and lyrics until the song was deemed ready.
The inspiration behind “Ghost in This House” came from watching Grapes of Wrath, in which the Muley character loses everything and remarks that, “I’m just an old graveyard ghost. That’s all I am.” An idea became a song when, during the dead of winter in New York (brutal enough as that is), Prestwood’s wife was involved in a minor car wreck, causing him to question what he would have been left had things been worse. He had country artist Michael Johnson in mind to record it, but it would be an Alabama-inspired band to tackle it instead.
Between 1988 and 1991, Shenandoah became known for its dense harmonies and knack for melodic hooks through a consistent run of singles in “The Church on Cumberland Road,” “Sunday in the South,” “Two Dozen Roses,” and “Next to You, Next to Me.” Something as slow and numbingly sad as “Ghost in This House,” then, presented a new side to lead singer Marty Raybon’s huge, expressive delivery, and became an eventual top five hit for the band. Unfortunately for Shenandoah, three other groups eventually claimed rights to the band name, and lawsuits forced the act into bankruptcy. The group would eventually bounce back, but sadly, the momentum from that single didn’t haunt listeners for long.
In the meantime, another version was recorded that wasn’t meant for country radio. Prestwood had originally envisioned his work as a little darker than it eventually became anyway, something slower and heavier. He liked the Shenandoah version and especially Raybon’s voice, but also wished it was less produced. He found an answer through a bluegrass prodigy.
Before she spearheaded the late ‘90s bluegrass revival, Alison Krauss was a child prodigy, known for her fiddling skills. Her distinctive, aching soprano would garner the most attention, however, when she signed with Rounder Records and released her debut album – 1987’s Too Late to Cry. Backed by her Union Station band, a handpicked quartet of young, talented pickers she joined in 1986, Krauss began making albums that regularly topped the bluegrass charts, and reinvented the typically male-dominated, fast-picking play style to fit her mold – one that emphasized both a lonesome-sounding soprano vocal and a heightened lyrical focus that were supported by the arrangements, rather than the other way around. The heartbroken subject matter of 1989’s Two Highways, then, revealed an artist and band that wasn’t so far removed from country music, with brokenhearted subject matter framed through the detail and irony of modern folk and bluegrass music.
Not to sound cliché, but Krauss’ take on “Ghost in This House” was much darker and, shall we say, “haunting” than the radio version. It was artistic and perfectly suited for her softer touch. Prestwood put it best when he said that both versions were perfect for what they were, and were two different ways of singing the same song.
Shenandoah eventually paid off the other acts and gained permanent rights to its name, and rebounded with hits like “Rock My Baby” and “I Want to Be Loved Like That,” as well a duet with Krauss on “Somewhere in the Vicinity of Your Heart,” the Country Music Association’s Vocal Event of the Year for 1995.
While meant to be taken as an examination of someone who’s lost a significant other in death, some examinations of “Ghost in This House” over the years have interpreted it to be about two living significant others who have both lost their passion for love, suggesting an equally sad subtext as they rattle on through an empty house. The ambiguity is a rare testament to its relatability and appeal, though, and regardless of which version one goes with or how they interpret it, there’s no doubt that it will linger long after it ends.