february 2011

Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers (from left): Evan McGregor, fiddle; Tim Kidd, bass; Mike Terry, mandolin; Joe Mullins, banjo; Adam McIntosh, guitar. In the hills where hymns such as these abide, grace dwells too.

From Lofty Heights, A Message

By David McGee

Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers
Rebel Records

For bluegrass veteran Joe Mullins, gospel is family tradition dating back to 1964, when his father began programming a “Hymns From the Hills” segment on his WPFB radio show in Middleton, Ohio, where the Mullins family had relocated to from eastern Kentucky. Joe followed his father into radio even as he joined the bluegrass band Traditional Grass as a banjo player. In 1995 he embraced Christianity by accepting Christ as his savior, and that same year purchased his first radio station, WBZI, in Xenia, OH. Now the owner of four radio stations, Mullins continues the tradition his father begat by having each one feature a “Hymns From the Hills” hour as part of the regular programming. With his band the Radio Ramblers, he brings the tradition directly to the people in concert and now, on record.

Hymns From the Hills serves double duty as Mullins’ personal statement of faith and a tribute to the hymns and gospel songs—and not least of all, to the artists—that have had so profound an impact on his life. In addition to Mullins’s usual stellar banjo work, the Radio Ramblers feature Mike Terry on mandolin, Adam McIntosh on guitar, Evan McGregor on fiddle and Tim Kidd on bass. Sitting in as guests: Ralph Stanley, Rhonda Vincent, Paul Williams, Doyle Lawson, Larry Sparks and, on guitar on one track, James Alan Shelton, and Missy Everidge on piano on two cuts. The repertoire encompasses vintage songs Mullins has known almost his entire life to newer songs from writers with impeccable credentials, such as the Ramblers’ own Adam McIntosh, Tim Stafford & Jon Weisberger and Brand New Strings’ Mike Ramsey. Mullins and his bandmates make it all sound brand new on the strength of their conviction in the messages they bring and in the dignified, intensely personal instrumental and vocal performances they summon in service to those messages. 

Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers, ‘Katy Daly,’ live on WAMU’s Bluegrass Country during IBMA, September 28, 2010

Backed by Mullins’s church children’s chorus, Ralph Stanley delivers a powerful reading of “Jesus Loves Me,” in a version expressly written from the perspective of an aging believer’s worldview, with the young voices and simple music box-like arrangement establishing an interesting tension with Stanley’s weathered reading of lyrics looking forward to his Heavenly reward. If any contemporary artist was born to sing bluegrass gospel, it is Rhonda Vincent (who’s promising a gospel album of her own in the near future), and the Queen makes two appearances here: on Aubrey Holt’s “We Missed You In Church Last Sunday” (which Mullins senior recorded with the Boys From Indiana in 1974), she takes the lead on a plaintive second verse and joins in with keening harmony on this cautionary note to a wayward congregant, with a little extra touch of woe added by McGregor’s aching fiddle support; on a thoughtful treatment of the classic “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” the album’s closing hymn—again an occasion for a touching McGregor fiddle solo ahead of Missy Everidge’s subdued, introspective piano solo taking the tune home—Vincent adds an emotional tenor vocal to Paul Williams’s powerful lead. From the Masters Family by way of Flatt & Scruggs comes “That Little Old Country Church House,” a poignant reminiscence of a place where “the Lord saved many souls” that has now gone to dust and decay in its abandonment, prompting an observation on the songwriters’ part (“the church it is forsaken/and the people have turned away”) that seems ever timely today. Larry Sparks takes the engaging, matter of fact lead on this one, with tight harmony support from the Ramblers (to which Sparks adds a sprightly guitar solo to boot), in an arrangement curiously upbeat given the song’s painful portrait of a once-fruitful place of worship. The most spectacular of the guest performances here comes on the Louvin Brothers’ self-affirming testimony “I’ll Never Go Back,” wherein Doyle Lawson offers a flawless, deeply committed lead vocal, Joe Mullins steps in to add impeccable Ira Louvin-style high harmony to Lawson’s lead, and Lawson enhances the arrangement by fashioning heated, serpentine soloing on the mandolin, in case we needed to be reminded of his preeminence on the instrument.

Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers,’ Roy Clark’s ‘Heaven’s Green Fields,’ from the band’s first album, Rambler’s Call

This is not to suggest, however, that Hymns From the Hills gets all its juice solely form its guests’ heightened artistry. Mullins, McIntosh and Terry engage each other in harmony and spiritual camaraderie on Mike Ramsey’s exultant song of salvation, “Fair Weather,” and hit their marks spot-on in the new Stafford-Weisberg song here, “Be Jesus To Someone Today,” a thoughtful, waltz-time message song counseling benevolence and charity towards others, in the manner Jesus practiced and preached, with the fellows coming together on moving three-part harmony on the verses and Matt Despain adding evocative resophonic guitar solos throughout. Driven by Mullins’s energetic banjo, the trio engages in a brisk reading of Buck Howard’s “Worth It All,” an anthem anticipating good deeds on this mortal coil being rewarded in Heaven. This arrangement allows Terry and McIntosh a couple of arresting solo turns on mandolin and fiddle, respectively, with Mullins adding a new verse to the standard text that might otherwise be familiar to New Found Road fans. Worth it all, indeed—in the hills where Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers find their hymns, so does grace abide.

Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers’ Hymns From The Hills is available at www.amazon.com

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024