Review: Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers – Another Day From Life

Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers’ latest CD is their best one yet – and I loved the others. If you haven’t already, do yourself a favor and give this CD (which was released this past fall) a listen. I have come to expect strong singing and beautiful melodies and harmonies from this band. This CD has all that and more. The instruments (the fiddle and mandolin in particular) are themselves like voices – without words – as they subtly thread their way in, out and around the melodies. This is not a new technique, but I have never heard the Radio Ramblers execute it with such feeling and style. The dynamics are spectacular!

“The Last Parade,” honoring a young war hero on his way to his final resting place, is my favorite song on the Another Day From Life CD. It begins quietly, with unembellished guitar notes played by Duane Sparks. Duane then leads off with one of the most hauntingly beautiful melodies I’ve heard in a long time. Joe Mullins and Mike Terry join in close harmony for the chorus: “Thank you son for how you fought that day . . . “ This tune is also a great vehicle for the fiddle (Evan McGregor) and the mandolin (Mike Terry) to weave their magic through the melody. Clear notes. Peaceful. Exquisite.

One of Joe’s real talents is his ability to take an old, much-recorded song and breathe new life into it with a fresh arrangement. That skill is on display with “May You Never Be Alone,” a Hank Williams Sr. tune that has also been recorded by Kitty Wells and Emmylou Harris among others. Unlike the other recordings, which feature solos, this version showcases the Mullins close harmonies and includes a great mandolin solo and some wonderful bluesy fiddling. An October 2014 Banjo Newsletter interview with Joe contains some interesting insights about how Joe approaches song selection and what he thinks about when creating a new arrangement for a familiar tune. I couldn’t wait to talk to him about some of the choices he made in Another Day From Life!

This is guitarist and lead singer Duane Sparks’ first recording with the Radio Ramblers. (He replaced Adam McIntosh in 2013 just after the release of the group’s last CD, They’re Playing My Song.) Hopefully, there will be many more recordings to come that feature Duane. He blends so well with the other musicians that you’d swear he had been with them from the very beginning.

It was most enjoyable to hear how fiddler Evan McGregor’s playing has matured over the years(He was one of the original members of the Radio Ramblers.) On this CD in particular, he plays with clarity, confidence and authority. His intonation is nearly perfect and his fiddle sings with a range of emotions. It was with some disappointment that I read – some weeks after the release of the CD – that Evan had left the band. And this is in no way a criticism of his replacement, Jason Barie, who previously played with Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver and is himself a very talented musician.

Virtually every song on the CD is worth writing about. (The only one I didn’t care for was the old standard “Miss Molly,” which seemed out of place. Maybe it fulfilled a desire to include a few up-tempo tunes. I will limit my comments to just one other song. “The Dearest Friend I Ever Had” is a stunning a cappella “call and response” arrangement that highlights the group’s compelling harmonies. The most outstanding part for me: We hear from bass player Randy Barnes who is singing bass (what else?) in his only vocal part on the CD.

“Every Road Leads Back To You”

Picking out album themes is a favorite pastime for many music lovers. I’m no exception. The songs on this CD focus on home and family, connection and disconnection, love and loss, faith and hope. The title track “Another Day from Life” (track 5) provides a big clue and pretty much summarizes these themes. As that song says, “Life goes on, it’s just another day . . . . A day of happiness for some, for some a day of strife.” This is a strong, cohesive album. Get it and see if you agree.

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