july 2008

Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice

Junior Sisk’s pinched, nasally tenor is one of bluegrass music’s most emotive, and identifiable, instruments, and it’s rarely been as affecting as it is here, in serving the reconstituted Ramblers Choice on the group’s return to the active list, Blue Side of the Blue Ridge. It’s been 10 years since the first edition of Ramblers Choice disbanded after one lone album, but since that time both Sisk and his cousin and musical partner Tim Massey have logged impressive tenures with other groups and as top-drawer songwriters. With a couple of veterans (fiddler Billy Hawks and banjo man Darrelll Wilkerson) and a relative newcomer (mandolinist Chris Harris) in tow, Sisk and Massey not only pick up where they left off a decade ago but move forward in fine style with wonderful songs (although only two come from Massey’s pen, and one from Sisk’s, a bit of an oddity considering both artists’ reputation as writers), compelling vocals and arresting displays of instrumental virtuosity.

It’s a tossup as to which Sisk vocal is the most penetrating here, but he certainly saved a wealth of deep feeling for his own heart tugging testimony of enduring love, the gently swaying “The Man In the Moon,” but his sense of drama asserts itself formidably in the understated conviction he delivers in the Bailes Brothers’ classic gospel testimony, “Dust On the Bible,” and he’s at his rollicking, aggrieved best in plaintively sounding warnings of looming economic woes in the ever timely barnburner, “The Wolf At the Door,” which opens the album on a furious note keyed by Wilkerson’s busy banjo and Hawks’s anxious fiddling. Massey, with a more conventional, earthy tenor, has a memorable turn delineating a poignant reminiscence of a hard working farmer plowing his fields back in the day, in a toe-tapper he co-wrote with Rick Pardue, “The Man in Red Camels,” and gets into keening, high lonesome mode on another tale of hardscrabble backwoods living, “Poor Mountain,” a strutting workout that allows room for Harris to execute some lickety-split runs on mandolin as Hawks’s fiddle and Wilkerson’s banjo keep the whole deal surging ahead. Of the many virtues to be found on Blue Side of the Blue Ridge, add to the mix two original songs from stellar producer-songwriter Ronnie Bowman—a tender, straight-ahead traditional country ode to family survival by wits and by love, “Little Bit of This, Little Bit of That,” and the album closing barnburning homage, “Steel Rail Rider,” featuring Sisk’s and Massey’s voices blending in soaring harmonies, and all the instrumentalists stepping into the spotlight for impeccably executed breakneck solos. With a subtext of surviving hard times through the strength of familial bonds and by the grace of God, Blue Side of the Blue Ridge provides more than a little food for thought, as Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice take the measure of the world around them. Stick around, fellas—a bit more of this is in order.—David McGee

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