Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers
Hymns from the Hills
4.5 stars (out of 5)
By Aaron Keith Harris
Hymns from the Hills is a phrase that has special meaning for those of us lucky enough to live in or around southwestern Ohio, where Paul “Moon” Mullins in 1964 on WPFB radio in Middletown dedicated an hour of early afternoon airtime to a country and bluegrass gospel program of that title. The tradition continued on WBZI in Xenia; son Joe has kept the torch alive since Moon’s death.
For about three years now, Joe has fronted the Radio Ramblers, a fine bluegrass and gospel unit that showcases his considerable talents as a banjo player, singer and arranger. This star-studded all-gospel project is their finest effort yet, with 47 minutes of music split between seven band-only tracks and seven which feature special guests.
The Ramblers — Tim Kidd (bass), Evan McGregor (fiddle), Adam McIntosh (guitar) and Mike Terry (mandolin) — are top-notch. McIntosh wrote the celebratory album-opener “He Loves Me” and sings lead on the Tim Stafford-Jon Weisberger composition “Be Jesus to Someone Today.” Terry leads a call-and-response version of “Rock of Ages Keep My Soul” and on “Worth It All,” an ebullient view of Heaven.
Mullins’ clear-as-a-bell lead tenor makes highlights of “Fallen Leaves,” which has been previously recorded by Grandpa Jones and the Primitive Quartet, and “Fair Weather,” a tuneful story from the Book of Job by songwriter Mike Ramsey. The band’s best track, however, is a blend of all their voices, the grand, a cappella chorus with a Celtic tinge, “O the Love of My Redeemer.”
Larry Sparks offers lead vocals on two tracks: “Come On,” which features a mellifluous blend of his voice and Mullins’, and “That Little Old Country Church House,” where this time the dust is on the pulpit and Sparks’ mournful lead laments the sad fact.
Jimmy Martin alumni Doyle Lawson and Paul Mullins make essential contributions, the former on a Louvin-style duet with Mullins on “I’ll Never Go Back,” the latter with “Hold On to the Old Gospel Way,” an old-sounding new song co-written by Williams and Mullins.
The venerable Ralph Stanley contributes an old man’s perspective to the children’s classic “Jesus Loves Me,” complete with children’s chorus, while Rhonda Vincent adds a woman’s touch to Aubrey Holt’s “We Missed You in Church Last Sunday.”
“Sweet Hour of Prayer,” which has vocals from Mullins, Williams and Vincent, closes the disc, a great song not often recorded. In fact, most of the songs on this disc are a long way from becoming the type of chestnut that it becomes a chore to listen to. But the greatness of this disc will see to it that this great material will touch hearts and captivate listeners for years to come.