Review: Junior Sisk & Joe Mullins: Hall of Fame Bluegrass

Junior Sisk and Joe Mullins’ Hall of Fame Bluegrass is a terrific CD, especially for those who like their bluegrass traditional, with lots of singing done the old-time way. As described in the excellent liner notes, the album grew out of Mullins’ and Sisk’s collaboration on the song “Lover’s Quarrel,” which was included on Sisk’s The Story of the Day That I Died album released earlier this year. (The liner notes were written by David Freeman, who is himself an IBMA Hall of Fame inductee. They lay out the CD’s premise – honoring individuals who have been chosen for the Bluegrass Hall of Fame since 1991 by doing their own interpretation of one or more of the tunes that the Hall of Famers recorded over the years.)

With 20+ years worth of inductees and scores of tunes recorded by each of the Hall of Famers over the last 50+ years, the song selection possibilities were endless. To their credit, Junior and Joe did not just reach for the old tried-and-true standards such as “Blue Moon of Kentucky” or “Maple on the Hill.” They went deep into the catalog and brought forth less well-known songs that haven’t been recorded much in recent years. The result is a CD that encourages you to listen to the lyrics and that gets better each time through.

My favorite is “I’ll Never Make You Blue,” which was written by Charlie and Curly Ray Cline and recorded in the early 1950’s by The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers (with Curly Ray on the fiddle) and by The McCoury Brothers in the late 1980’s. This great bluesy song showcases Joe and Junior singing a duet about a lost lover who has gone away, with Jason Carter’s fiddle whining (in a good bluesy way!) in the background. As the first verse ends, Jason takes over with a verse-length break that is positively breathtaking; it is so sinuous, with highs and lows and drawn-out notes, that I can visualize him leaning into it with his eyes closed.

“I’ll Never Make You Blue”

“The Bluebirds Are Singing For Me,” a good up-tempo song that was written and popularized by Matt Wiseman and later recorded by the Country Gentlemen, features a call-and-response style of singing with Junior singing lead and Joe Mullins responding in a high tenor. The bluebirds are calling him back home, where he learns that his love has “gone away,” buried “beneath the clay.” This tune gives the outstanding pickers assembled for this recording an opportunity for an instrumental call and response (mandolin to fiddle to banjo, then back again the other way) that is straightforward yet compelling. The emphasis is on singing in this CD, and there are no pure instrumentals (such as the classic “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” or “Orange Blossom Special”) included.

“No Blind Ones There” tells the tragic story of a blind child who worries when her father remarries after the death of her mother Mary: Can another “Mary” take her mother’s place in her father’s arms and will she love the child too? The little girl never gets the chance to find out as she herself dies soon after, but she goes to a better place. Her tombstone says “There’ll be No Blind Ones There.” This soulful tune is usually associated with J.D. Crowe (2003 inductee) and Doyle Lawson (2012.)

I can see why the two J’s were eager to collaborate on this project. They sing from the heart and seem to relish the chance to tell a sad story, teach a lesson or express joy. Their voices blend and complement each other very well, both singly and together. Even though the music is generally slower than much of the bluegrass we hear today, the album never flags and they include a good mixture of solos, duets and instrumental breaks.

One of my favorite musical pastimes is trying to find a pattern and guess why particular songs were selected and why they were placed in a certain order. My take?? This album digs into the themes of LOVING and LEAVING. It’s no accident that both Joe Mullins (Radio Ramblers) and Junior Sisk (Ramblers Choice) have “ramblers” in their names. I’m eager to talk to Joe and Junior sometime to see if this is all my imagination.

Buy this CD!!

Rebel Records

Gayle Yeomans

Gayle Yeomans is a retired lawyer and financial services lobbyist. She now lives at her turn-of-the-century home and farm in western Ulster County. There she and her husband Dick Bowden take care of and spoil two quarter horses. She listened almost exclusively to classical music until her mid-thirties when her sister MaryE introduced her to bluegrass music. Gayle took up playing the fiddle in her sixties (too late?) and enjoys jamming with Dick and some of his more patient bluegrass pals.

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