Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice
Blue Side of the Blue Ridge
4 stars (out of 5)
The first time I remember hearing Junior Sisk’s hard country/smooth bluegrass voice was on the Come Go With Me album of a band called BlueRidge in 2002. At the time, Sisk had joined forces with Alan Bibey and Terry Baucum to craft a formidable tradition-based but modern bluegrass sound. I had missed Sisk’s earlier recording with Ramblers Choice and with Wyatt Rice & Santa Cruz. But on first listen to Come Go With Me, I was aware that Sisk was someone whose music and singing I wanted to further explore. By chance, I was fortunate to catch BlueRidge at a festival a number of years back, and hearing Sisk live only strengthened my admiration for his vocal talents.
In the past few years, Baucum and Bibey left BlueRidge to go onto other bluegrass projects; such is the nature of the bluegrass world: bands come, bands go. Sisk elected to spend some time regrouping his forces, and has emerged with another in a string of albums that should find themselves well-received in the bluegrass world.
Let’s start with Sisk and his voice. His is a bluegrass voice to be remembered. It contains elements of James King, but is more nasally (and that is a good thing, to my ears), and maybe Don Rigsby, but with more power apparent. As he has in the past, Sisk remains very capable of transporting listeners to whatever setting he deems to sing about. He captures the magic of memories of a simpler past on “Little Bit of This, Little of That.” When he sings, “It’s time for me to start over, and time for you to leave” in “I Did the Leaving For You” one senses the frustrated heartbreak of withered love within the spirited arrangement. Seemingly lighter fare is the “Wolf at the Door” and “You Let the Dog Off the Chain,” but as is done in the best songs, deeper messages are conveyed.
Elsewhere, Sisk pursues love on the “Blue Side of the Blue Ridge Mountains,” finds new-found adult freedom while “Leaving Baker County” on foot, and contemplates hillbilly philosophy shining down from “The Man in the Moon.” Few bluegrass singers handle a spiritual number as sincerely as Sisk, and he out does himself on “Dust on the Bible,” a song familiar from the Bailes Brothers, the Blue Sky Boys, and others.
On “The Man in Red Camels,” one of two songs sung by Tim Massey, days past are remembered as he successfully communicates the impression a hard-working man made while “scratching out a living, the best way he knew how.” Massey wrote this number with Rick Perdue, and while the writing is strong, it is Massey’s interpretation of this that allows the listen to envision the red clay field, stained plow handles, and the man struggling with the mule.
At every turn, Ramblers Choice frames Sisk’s singing with tasteful and appropriate bluegrass instrumentation. At times Chris Harris’ mandolin sends out individual notes that trill, and elsewhere his chop provides a welcome percussive element. Banjoist Darrell Wilkerson has several opportunities to shine, most obviously on “Steel Rail Rider,” a cut on which everyone takes a turn to show off just a little. And the harmonies!
Blue Side of the Blue Ridge isn’t going to be the best selling bluegrass album of the year, and it most likely will be ignored when it comes time for year-end ballots. Still, it is a more than enjoyable album, with several elements- such as Sisk’s voice and superior song selection- making it notable and highly recommended.
by Donald Teplyske