Review By Steven Stone
Being a top-echelon professional bluegrass musician is similar to being a member in an exclusive underground club. The members all know each other from their not-so-secret handshake, which is the ability to play bluegrass right. All the personnel of Junior Sisk’s new band, Rambler’s Choice, are clearly in this select company.
Bandleader Sisk began his career as a songwriter. In 1994 two of his songs were included on Lonesome River Band’s Old Country Town CD. By 1998 Sisk had formed the first incarnation of his band Ramblers Choice. Original band members included fiddler Jimmy Van Cleve and banjo player Elmer Burchett Jr. After one album Ramblers Choice disbanded and Sisk went on to front Lost and Found before joining the Blueridge band in 2002. After three very successful CDs, Blueridge dissolved in 2006 and Sisk joined with his cousin, songwriter and bassist Tim Massey to resurrect Ramblers Choice. Ronnie Bowman and Dan Tyminski have recorded Massey’s songs, including the IBMA song of the year, “Cold Virginia Night.” Sisk and Massey quickly assembled other band members – fiddler Billy Hawks, banjo player Darrell Wilkerson, and Merlefest mandolin contest winner Chris Harris. Mandolinist Harris’ fast clean picking style is reminiscent of mandolin master Alan Bibey, who played with Sisk in Blueridge.
As the world continues to shrink the concept of a regional sound has become increasingly rare and archaic. But Ramblers Choice tries to retain what they refer to as southeast Virginia bluegrass. Their sound relies less on breakneck-paced rhythms and more on loping tight/loose arrangements that have a comfortable and well-worn feel. Sometimes the lead singer leads the pace while other times, even within the same song, Sisk will hang behind the beat in the Lefty Frizell/saloon singer tradition. Their ability to play with the beat and pace of a song gives Ramblers Choice an older and less polished edge that is refreshing, especially when compared to some of the ultra-slick bluegrass bands such as Rhonda Vincent’s The Rage or Ricky Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder.
Produced by veteran bluegrass producer and singer Ronnie Bowman, the production values on Blue Side of The Blue Ridge never distract from the music. Yes, the album sounds good, but never once did I find myself thinking “great sound!” Instead my listening notes are peppered with comments such as, “Nice trio harmonies and hot mandolin solo!” Yup, Ramblers Choice delivers great bluegrass without showbiz glitz, which is what bluegrass is all about.