Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers latest album, They’re Playing My Song (Rebel Records), is a celebration of the group’s bluegrass, country and gospel roots. Starting with the first track “A Blue Million Tears” (written by Joe Mullins) and continuing through to the last of 14 tracks, I was impressed by the richness and texture of their harmonies and the band’s strong, cohesive sound. This is an album that deserves to be listened to multiple times (and I did!). Each time I played through the CD, I found more to appreciate.
First, a bit of background and history: Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers received the prestigious IBMA Emerging Artists of the Year award in September 2012, a short time before the release of They’re Playing My Song. Prior to this album, they released Rambler’s Call (2010) and Hymns from the Hills (2011) on the Rebel label. Both albums (particularly the 2011 CD) received rave reviews from the major bluegrass publications. The Radio Ramblers were formed in 2006 by Ohio radio station owner-operator Joe Mullins. (Mullins is a professional banjo player who had first purchased a struggling AM radio station in southwestern Ohio in 1995; he later bought two more regional AM stations.) Joe grew up in Ohio, surrounded by bluegrass/gospel music. His father was Paul “Moon” Mullins, a highly regarded fiddler who had played with the Stanley Brothers. The elder Mullins hosted bluegrass/gospel programs on AM radio in Ohio for some forty years, beginning in the mid-1960’s. The original five musicians in the Radio Ramblers (Joe Mullins, banjo; Mike Terry, mandolin; Adam McIntosh, guitar; Tim Kidd, bass; and Evan McGregor, fiddle) lived in close proximity to each other in Ohio. Though they each had “day jobs,” they stayed together as a band for more than six years – until the end of 2012. (See the note at the end of this article for an update on the band.) For an in-depth review of the history and accomplishments of Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers, I highly recommend an excellent Chris Stuart article which was the cover story in the August 2012 issue of Bluegrass Unlimited.
This album showcases the musical breadth, depth and versatility of the members, both individually and as a group. Those of you who love to listen to close harmony singing are definitely in for a treat on this CD – all but two of the fourteen tracks are songs that feature 2-, 3-, or 4-part harmonies which are as smooth and rich as melted butter. “Moses, Set My People Free,” which is sung á cappella, took my breath away; it highlights Joe Mullins’ haunting high tenor singing the words “I am . . .” as the others’ voices layer almost perfectly around him in response. The band has a wealth of lead singing talent – Adam McIntosh and Mike Terry split the lead duties with Joe. None of this is meant to shortchange the musicians’ instrumental talents, which are considerable. My personal favorite in this department was Evan McGregor on the fiddle. His tasteful backup playing (which occasionally moved into the foreground) helped to make the transitions from vocal solos to harmonies flow seamlessly. (I admit that the first instrument I listen to in a band is the fiddle, but the attention here was well deserved!)
There is a good mix of well-known and not-so-well-known tunes on the CD. They echo the bluegrass and country themes of lost loves, dying mothers and wives, faith and home. These salutes to the past include “Lily” (a beautiful song about the beginning and ending of a 50-year marriage and the coming of spring); a Medley of four songs popularized by the Osborne Brothers (and arranged here by Joe Mullins); “Listen, They’re Playing My Song” (recorded by Waylon Jennings in the late ‘60’s); and “Katy Daley,” which was written by Joe’s father (Paul Mullins) decades ago. The CD also features three new songs written by various band members: “A Blue Million Tears” by Joe Mullins; “Granddad (The Preacher)” by guitarist Adam McIntosh; and “Our Old Kentucky Home” by mandolin player Mike Terry.
My favorite?? I loved the lyrics, the simple (waltz) melody and the performance of Adam’s “Granddad (The Preacher).” You don’t have to be a church-goer to be inspired by its touching story of a part-time preacher “in a second hand suit, with dust on his collar and under his nails,” who makes his living as a coal miner and watches over his flock on Sunday mornings. Adam’s rich voice (singing lead) is complemented by the perfect harmony with the tenor (Joe) and baritone (Mike) on the chorus. “Some Kind of War” (great lyrics, which caution that “life itself can be a battlefield and we’re all fighting in some kind of war”) and the “Osborne Brothers Medley” (“Windy City,” “Making Plans,” “Fair & Tender Ladies,” and “Kentucky”) round out the list of my favorites on this album.
Overall, this is a CD well worth owning. I have one small reservation: I found the choice of tunes at the beginning somewhat disappointing. The first two songs were pleasant but not compelling enough, in my opinion, to kick off the CD and insure the listener’s continued attention. The third tune (“Steel Guitar Rag,” popularized in a long-ago Bob Wills recording) was a fast instrumental that provided a vehicle for each musician, starting with the banjo, to play several lightning quick breaks. Meanwhile, I was waiting for the harmony show to begin! – again, a matter of personal preference.
All things considered, if you haven’t experienced Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers before, you owe it to yourself to check them out on this CD, as well as their two earlier releases.
Footnote: At the beginning of 2013 (after the release of They’re Playing My Song), Adam McIntosh left the band to move to Arizona with his family and take a new position with the Mandolin Store. Duane Sparks, a guitar player and vocalist from Richmond, Indiana, has taken his place in the Radio Ramblers.