Virginia’s Junior Sisk and his band Rambler’s Choice have just released what I understand is their second album together, on respected bluegrass label Rebel. This is pretty much straight bluegrass, with exemplary picking from a five piece band with three-part harmonies. Frontman and guitarist Junior Sisk sings lead on most of the tracks, with his cousin and bass player Tim Massey usually singing tenor, and mandolin player Jason Tomlin on baritone harmonies. Fiddle player Billy Hawks adds another harmony voice on just one song, and banjoist Darrell Wilkerson restricts himself to his instrument.
The material consists mostly of broadly similar mid to up tempo songs, and this brings up the principal flaw of the record as far as I’m concerned; too often, particularly with the uptempo material, the sad songs simply don’t sound sad and lonesome. Maybe I’m just not enough of a bluegrass purist, but I want more than virtuoso playing.
The worst offender is ‘Don’t You Cry’ is a very traditional style bluegrass number with Tim Massey singing lead, about a bereaved husband trying to comfort his daughter, but the vocal delivery lacks the emotion demanded by the lyric, making it the least effective track on the album. The fast-paced title track was written by Sisk with his father, about a relationship foundering because the loved one is stuck living “in the past on heartaches and dreams”, and again the sad emotions feel rushed to me. The lively opener ‘Train Without A Track’ is written by Tom T Hall and his wife Dixie, and again sounds fairly perky considering the singer compare being without his lover to being:
Like a ship without a sea
A truck without a highway
A train without a track
The music is great on all these songs, but if one was not paying attention it would not be obvious that these songs are sad ones. Having said that, some of the up-tempo sad songs do work well. The pacing of ‘Working Hard Ain’t Hardly Working Anymore’ is enjoyable, perhaps because the lyric is about movement, with a narrator lamenting a love’s failure to thrive thus:
Working hard ain’t hardly working anymore
Working overtime to hold on to the love we had before
I just clocked out and my bags were waiting for me at the door
Working hard ain’t hardly working anymore
‘A Black Hearse Following Me’ is also a cheerful sounding pacy number on a downbeat theme (a man growing old fast by drinking away the pain of lost love), as Sisk delivers the only solo vocal on the album on what is one of my favorite tracks with a bright and attractive melody and well-written lyric which both keep the listener enthralled:
Well I have loved and I have lost and that makes a crazy old man
So I’m out doing what the losers do and doing the best I can…
She’s still there in my whiskey glass and I ain’t memory free
Running wide open throttle in a long neck bottle with a black hearse following me
I also enjoyed the band’s version of the bluegrass classic ‘You Broke Your Promise’, and another older song, ‘The Laugh’s On Me’.
In general, though, Sisk is most effective conveying emotion when he slows things down, as he does on ‘Humble Man’, written by Larry McPeak, a husband’s penitent appeal for forgiveness and a fresh start:
Will you kiss these lips that lied to you and made your heart so sad?
Will you hold these hands that have touched your soft skin time and time again?
Can your loving heart forgive the hurt that’s wrecked your soul and mine?
Will you take this humble man and try his love one more time?
Bass player Tim Massey gets to sing lead again on his own neatly observed ‘Guns, Coins And Jewelry’ using the contents of a pawn shop to reveal a sad story of shattered love:
Guns, coins and jewelry, and assorted guitars
Each with its own story and its own battle scars
For 10 cents on a dollar with things you will part
Guns, coins and jewelry, and second hand hearts
He pawned her diamond and she sold his gun
The result of misfortune and love come undone
The last thing to go was his old .28
Caught in the middle of love turned to hate
Matt Jones’ satisfyingly cautionary story song ‘Bullets Always Win’ tells of a gambler caught cheating in New Orleans, who finds to his cost:
Some folks say it’s hard to beat a straight
Hard to know when to fold or stay in
But the only thing they say that always will ring true
Is when the last man’s standing, bullets always win
Gospel is a strong part of bluegrass, and there are a couple of good selections here, of which my favorite is the heartfelt declaration of ‘The Lowest Valley’, where a sense of palpable longing infuses the drawn-out lead vocal:
Give me the strength to do thy perfect will
And when I’m in the lowest valley I can climb the highest hill
This world gets more wicked every day
People’s grown cold, forgotten how to pray
If I live to be 100 I’ll keep holding to your hand
Until you come and take me home to that promised land
A briskly delivered take on Dottie Swan’s ‘Let The Light Shine Down’ closes out the set.
It’s all very well-played, nicely if not distinctively sung, and the songs are pretty good, if lacking much variation in tempos. It should appeal to those who like uncompromising straight bluegrass.