CD Review: Blue Side of the Blue Ridge by Junior Sisk and Rambler’s Choice

There’s a great scene in the movie Crazy Heart where “Bad” Blake, the charismatic, but rather messed up, former country legend, is laying on the bed, playing his guitar, and trying to seduce Jean Craddock, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Blake sings a bit of a song, then asks Jean what thinks about the song.  She looks puzzled, trying to remember where she’s heard it before. Blake tells her he just wrote it, and says, “That’s the way it is with the good ones, you’re sure you’ve heard them before.”
 
It’s a great scene from the movie, and it’s a great way to approach the music of Junior Sisk, who sings songs I’m sure I’ve heard before, even if they’ve never been on any other recording, and who doesn’t, by and large, record the songs you’ve heard too many times. Truth is, even after listening to this CD about 12 times, I wasn’t able to tell which songs were newly written and which songs had been brought out of the bluegrass history books. (The exception being the lone gospel song “Dust on the Bible,” which has more rhythmic energy and just plain pep than the Mac Wiseman classic.)
 
Please note this isn’t because JS&RC sound like a Flatt and Scruggs tribute band, nor because they stretch hard for the dubious achievement of sounding more “progressive” than the latest jamband. (“Hey, look at us! We mixed bluegrass with a gamelan orchestra and released a whole album of King Crimson covers!”) Rather, I didn’t recognize “The Wolf Is At the Door” as an old song, nor “Steel Rail Rider” as a new one, because it all sounds like today’s solid bluegrass–more melodic and bell-like mandolin than Monroe, more lyrical but gutsy banjo than Earl, but more Blue Ridge than Blue Highway, if I may be permitted to use an “inside-baseball” bluegrass comparison.

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“The Wolf Is At The Door”



Then there’s Junior’s singing. Wow! Honest and emotional, but none of the dramatic hyperbole of modern country music–he can sing a sad song and make you feel it, while still coming across as having fun with the music.  I understand from their website that Darrel Wilkerson, the banjo player on Blue Side of the Blue Ridge, has moved on, and that’s a shame for Rambler’s Choice, because his playing animates the whole project- it’s driving but interesting, moving things forward yet always playing the melody.
 
Blue Side Of The Blue Ridge reminds me why I love this music- it speaks to the heart, with good songs that sound like you’ve always known them.
 
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