“Rambler’s Call” by Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers

Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers
Rambler’s Call
4 stars (out of 5)

About a year after their initial recorded effort, Tuned In, Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers have produced a sophomore disc that proves they deserve to be considered a top-flight bluegrass band.

The vocal diversity and execution are what makes Rambler’s Call a stronger effort than its predecessor.

Guitarist Adam McIntosh kicks things off with a lead vocal on Wynn Stewart’s “Another Day, Another Dollar,” his rich voice also making the Aubrey Holt-penned title track, “Smoke Along the Track,” and  “Mountain Girl” sound at once both traditional and contemporary.

Mandolinist Mike Terry sings a fine lead on a tear-jerking mama song, “The Old Rockin’ Chair” and most of the gospel material, like “No Longer an Orphan,” “Heaven’s Green Fields,” and the albums rousing a cappella closer, “Don’t You Want to Go Home.”

But the star here is definitely Joe Mullins, simply one of the best banjo players around, as much for his ability to reel off a driving showpiece like Don Reno’s “Charlotte Breakdown” as for his playing behind others’ vocals and instrumental breaks, which ranks with Earl Scruggs, Sonny Osborne and Rob McCoury.

Mullins also steps out on lead vocals on “Old Blue Tomorrow,” “Boston Jail,” and Merle Haggard’s timely “Farmer’s Blues.”

Mullins’ backing high tenor backing vocals are just as tasty as his back-up picking, and he deserves a lot of credit as a bandleader for whipping the duets and trio arrangements into the gorgeous shape in which they appear on disc.

The overall instrumentation – which also features fiddler Evan McGregor, bassist Tim Kidd and Dobroist Matt DeSpain – is far above average, but once in a while a little less than authoritative, but this is still one of the year’s most spirited and enjoyable bluegrass albums.

by Aaron Keith Harris