Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers
3 stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
Over the course of the past decade, Ohioan Joe Mullins has increased his presence at the fore of bluegrass presenting a pleasing, largely traditional interpretation of the music.
With more albums to his credit than one may be able to keep straight—including side projects with Junior Sisk and Longview, as well as a rich catalog as part of the Traditional Grass—no collection of bluegrass recordings is complete without representation from Mullins. On this, their fifth for Rebel Records, Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers have elected to record another bluegrass gospel offering, a companion to their 2011 set Hymns from the Hills.
Sacred Memories is a good album, but it has obvious shortcomings.
The instrumentation is tight and varied—seamless, the instruments work together as beautifully as intended. On a track like “Oh Lord,” Mike Terry’s lonely mandolin chop keeps time while Jason Barie establishes a fiddle-rich melody given over to a blend of voices that is just this side of heavenly. Throughout the album, on songs like “First Word in Heaven is He,” “The Armor of My God,” and “We Can Sing,” joyful three- and four-part harmony is apparent, providing a listening experience that remains fresh time after time.
A bluegrass gospel album succeeds best when there is dimension to the songs, and there is no shortage of that apparent herein. “The Same Old Dipper” is a winning composition, and features some excellent guitar work from Duane Sparks. Sung by Sparks, “All Dressed Up” is a fine ‘he’s going to a funeral’ song, definitely tied to Christian beliefs with a touch of whimsy in its narrative; the refrain of ‘he’s all dressed up with somewhere to go’ is clever.
The a cappella tradition is well-represented by the brief “He’s Getting’ It Done,” another song that combines its sacred message with a lightness of lyric. “I Know What I Know” kicks off with a snap of Joe Mullins’ banjo that is electrifying, and the confidence of the group—in themselves and their faith—is apparent even when the material isn’t the strongest.
For the most part, the nine songs performed by the Radio Ramblers are stellar. Sacred Memories disappoints when it veers away from bluegrass gospel.
Songs featuring guest artists are too precious to be fully appreciated. Perhaps intended to broaden the appeal of the album, a trio of numbers do the inverse: not weak performances, just not as sincere and authentic as when the Radio Ramblers are left to their own devices.
The title track is obviously a down-home church song, including elements of ”I Can’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore,” “If We Never Meet Again,” and “Power in the Blood”; with Ricky Skaggs leading the way on this old Dolly Parton song, it is sure to be popular in some quarters, despite the prominence of piano in the arrangement.
Rhonda Vincent guests on “I Hope We Walk the Last Mile Together,” a song drifting too close to bland, Christian country for comfort. The album closes with the Isaacs guesting with Mullins on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” With a jarring piano overture serving as introduction, this otherwise a cappella rendition would have been better served by either delicate mandolin or guitar noodling to establish the mood. As presented, the most stirring and uplifting of timeless country gospel standards is rendered lifeless.
Uneven in execution, Sacred Memories features a large handful of strong bluegrass gospel performances from Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers. When stretched into less comfortable waters, the quartet slip their mooring.