By Donald Teplyske
With all the recent viable and necessary discussions within the bluegrass world about big tents and “bridging the gap to the bigger acoustic world” (see Chris Pandolfi’s blog), a complementary perspective is welcome to those who feel that the word ‘bluegrass’ should actually mean something.
When an album kicks off with a fiddle and these words, a stylistic gauntlet is being dropped:
It’s hard to tell which way the music is going,
And sometimes I wonder how long it will last.
I still listen to all the words and the music,
But it ain’t nothing like it was in the past.
As Pandolfi so acutely described, citing Bill Evans, in his 2011 IBMA keynote address, the essence of bluegrass is more impactful than some real musical standard. Both that essence of bluegrass and bluegrass’s real musical standard are front and center on The Heart of a Song.
As a respected bluegrass songwriter and through stints of various lengths with Wyatt Rice & Santa Cruz, the original Ramblers Choice, The Lost & Found, and Blue Ridge, Junior Sisk has established himself as one of bluegrass music’s most distinctive and vibrant vocalists.
Now on his third album as Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice, and with the core of the band stable, The Heart of a Song solidifies Sisk and his crew’s presence as a premier outfit within the very crowded bluegrass fold.
True, Sisk’s long-time singing partner Tim Massey—who plays bass on this album and who co-wrote the album’s popular opener (#1 on a recent Bluegrass Today airplay chart) “A Far Cry from Lester & Earl”—has recently amicably departed the group. What matters is the quality of this album and The Heart of a Song is as a strong an album from start to finish as one is likely to encounter in the autumn of 2011.
The instrumental virtuosity and singing traditions of bluegrass are well-represented on The Heart of a Song’s dozen tracks. As he should, Junior takes that majority of leads with Massey taking a pair and Jason Tomlin a single track. Junior Sisk always sounds wonderful and his ability to channel contemporary bluegrass through traditional sounds frequently seems magical.
In addition to “A Far Cry from Lester & Earl,” several tracks provide tremendous evidence of Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice’s mastery of the music. The Stanley sound is all over this album. “String, Eraser, and Blotter” comes from The Stanley Brothers while other songs, such as “The Devil’s Old White Well,” simply sound Stanley-made.
The bluegrass standard “Sea of Regret,” previously recorded by any number of artists including Joe Val, Ralph Stanley, Whitley & Skaggs, and Dave Evans, features the vocal trio of Massey’s lead, Sisk’s tenor and Tomlin’s high baritone and provides that modern bridge to the sounds of the past. Billy Hawks’ fiddle establishes the mournful mood of “Cold Heart” and Sisk’s lead takes the song straight into plum pitiful territory.
A new Dixie and Tom T. Hall song features Sisk singing alone. One of the more disturbing songs to come along recently, “The Grave Robber” is pure atmosphere. With only Sisk’s guitar providing instrumental texture, he calmly recites a story that is mountain dark. In Tom T.’s words, an epic tale.
“The Sound of Your Name” is a plaintive bluegrass-country ballad that sounds a bit out of place amongst the album’s more masculine pieces. Rhonda Vincent’s vocal presence greatly softens the song and this may broaden the song’s appeal. “Another Man’s Arms” is a prison song that has been told before, but Jason Davis’ driving banjo sets this one apart.
Junior Sisk has long been one of bluegrass music’s strongest voices. With three albums fronting his own band, and his latest being quite exceptional, one hopes The Heart of a Song garners the attention and sales it deserves.