Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers’ latest CD, Sacred Memories, is a nice addition to their recorded repertoire. (The group’s earlier CDs are Ramblers Call (2010); Hymns from the Hills (2011); They’re Playing My Song (2013); and Another Day from Life (2015).) Once again on this CD, the group’s harmonies are outstanding. Each of the band members (except for fiddler Jason Barie) sings lead on one or more of the tracks. They also have the versatility to trade off on the baritone, tenor and bass parts. There is an impressive list of guest artists on the CD, and they most definitely do not disappoint. Ricky Skaggs and his wife Sharon White Skaggs bring great energy and style to the title song, Sacred Memories. Sharon’s voice has power that is a bit like Dolly Parton’s. Rhonda Vincent’s harmonies with Joe on “I Hope We Walk the Last Mile Together” are spectacular, and the Isaacs (Becky, Sonya and Ben) join Joe for a stirring, a cappella version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
Most of the songs on this new CD will probably be unfamiliar to the average bluegrass listener. Two exceptions are the often-recorded “Will the Circle be Unbroken” (more about that later) and “Sacred Memories,” which was written and recorded by Dolly Parton in the mid-1970’s. The inclusion of so many songs that are little heard outside the gospel/Christian world was a bold move. It mostly succeeded, though the up-tempo songs were a bit of a disappointment. In any event, it sent me running to the internet in search of information about several songwriters who were unfamiliar to me, as well as earlier recordings of the songs. I spent a very happy afternoon on this journey.
Paul Humphrey, who wrote “I Know What I Know” (track 9), was one of the names I researched. Much to my surprise, I learned that Paul Humphrey is the real name for the outstanding bluegrass musician we know as Paul Williams. (Paul began his career in the early 1950’s as a member of the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers; he later joined Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys band. Then, after a 30-year hiatus from the bluegrass road musician scene, he put together the Victory Trio and has recorded countless bluegrass/gospel records with them.)
“Oh Lord” (track 4) is one of my favorites on this album. The song is written from the point of view of a death row prisoner. Though he admits that all he has done is “gamble, drink and fight,” the prisoner pleads, “I’m not prepared to die.” The fiddle kicks off the tune, Joe sings lead in a minor key (“Oh Lord, Oh Lord. Don’t Hurry Me”) as Mike and Duane join him for a tight three-part harmony. The four-part harmony in “He’s Getting’ It Done” (track 6) is equally compelling.
“I Hope We Walk the Last Mile Together” is notable for the excellent pairing of Joe’s voice with guest Rhonda Vincent. Their voices blend beautifully. You can tell that this is not their first collaboration. As I listened to this track, I kept thinking I’d heard the song before. The melody, the rhythm, and the meter of the lyrics are reminiscent of a song called “We Missed You in Church Last Sunday” which Joe and Rhonda sang on The Radio Ramblers’ Hymns from the Hills album a few years ago.
“Will The Circle Be Unbroken”
The last song on the CD, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” demonstrates Joe Mullins’ deep knowledge of gospel and bluegrass music and his uncanny ability to end a CD on just the right note. This is not the more familiar “modern” version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” (That song, which was reworked by A. P. Carter in the 1930’s, includes music and a verse structure which is virtually identical to a 1907 hymn by the same name; however, Carter changed the lyrics to turn it into a funeral hymn about a mother dying, a hearse pulling up to take her away, and her crying children. Johnny Cash, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Doc Watson and a host of others recorded the Carter version.) On this CD, Mullins instead used the 1907 public domain hymn that was written by Ada Habershon (lyrics) and Charles Gabriel (music). This original version is uplifting. It talks about the “bliss” of those who have died before you and suggests that the family will be reunited in heaven. Mullins’ interpretation has a great old-fashioned appeal. It begins with a simple piano, like you might have heard in church decades ago. The harmonies that follow are some of the best on this CD.
This is a CD worth buying and listening to. The singing is powerful (and at times very moving) – especially the a cappella numbers. The instrumentals are very good. Jason Barie, the fiddler who joined the band last year, has quickly picked up the Radio Ramblers style. At times, the banjo seemed too harsh or too loud – but that is a matter of personal preference. Finally, it was fun to have the excuse to search out and discover some songwriters that were new to me.