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Junior Sisk rambles again, by choice

By Rick Bell, June 2008

It's not that Junior Sisk fell off the bluegrass map; it just seems that way. After helping to lead traditional bluegrass units like Wyatt Rice and Santa Cruz, the original edition of Ramblers Choice, Lost & Found and BlueRidge for the better part of the late 1990s and into the new millennium, Sisk seemingly disappeared after BlueRidge disbanded in late 2006 just as the band was reaching the heights of bluegrass stature.

BlueRidge had released three widely acclaimed albums and received plenty of praise for their electrifying live performances. Sisk admits he did fade into the background after BlueRidge disbanded. Forming a new band, he said, seemed like an incredibly daunting task. And he felt like he needed some plain old down time. Yet it wasn't like he completely set down his trusty six-string and used that powerful, distinctive tenor merely for conversational purposes.

"After BlueRidge split up, I was just filling in here and there," says Sisk from his home in the BlueRidge Mountains in southwest Virginia. "I wasn't exactly sure what I was going to do. It's hard to start a new band, so I was thinking I'd go with a more established group. That way I wouldn't have the headache of looking to get established again."

Sisk kicked around a bit, working around the house and picking up side jobs here and there, including some shows with David Parmley. But Sisk could sense there was more to do as a professional bluegrass singer, songwriter and musician. He'd initially established himself as a songwriter, penning two songs - including the jam session favorite "The Game (I Can't Win)" for the Lonesome River Band in 1994. Sisk also contributed to the award-winning Doobie Shea project "Stanley Gospel Tradition: Songs of Our Savior" that included Dan Tyminski, Aubrey Haynie, Charlie Sizemore, James King and Tim Austin in 1999.

About the same time, Sisk's cousin, noted bluegrass singer-songwriter-bassist Tim Massey - also a founding member of the original Ramblers Choice - had just left the band Carolina Road. Massey, who wrote the International Bluegrass Music Association's Song of the Year in 1995, "Cold Virginia Night" for the Lonesome River Band's Ronnie Bowman, also wasn't sure what was next. Yet, with an array of songs recorded by such bluegrass heavyweights as Dan Tyminski, the Lonesome River Band, IIIrd Tyme Out, Ernie Thacker and Blue Ridge, it wouldn't be long until another gig came a callin'.

I Did the Leaving For You

Sisk and Massey both were hesitant to pull the trigger on a new path. It wasn't until banjo picker Darrell Wilkerson called one day that the future immediately crystallized. "What got me going again was when Darrell told me, 'If you want to do something, call me,' " Sisk recalls. "It'd been a year and a couple months, and it got me to thinking more, and it got Tim fired up. So we wanted to see who else wanted to get involved."

Wilkerson, who now is Ramblers Choice's full-time banjo player, introduced Sisk and Massey to young mandolin player Chris Harris. He was eager to get involved, Sisk says, and soon they were meeting on a regular basis. "Chris jumped right in, and we started jamming," Sisk says. The next thing you know, we're ready to start the band."

Turned out that not only does Harris pick a fine mandolin, he can also hit the high notes. "He's a great tenor singer," Sisk says of Harris, who also is a student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. "Me and Timmy are too old to do that anymore. We leave that to the young 'uns now. He does most of the tenor on the new album."

Ah, the new album. It's been a decade since the original Ramblers Choice released its lone, highly acclaimed disc, titled "Sounds of the Mountains" on Rounder Select records. In fact, the original members have spread through some of bluegrass music's finest bands of the past 10 years. Besides Sisk and Massey's impressive resumes, founding Ramblers Jim Van Cleve, Alan Perdue and Elmer Burchett have served with, among others, Mountain Heart, IIIrd Tyme Out and Continental Divide.

The new record, "Blue Side of the Blue Ridge," is produced by their longtime friend and occasional collaborator, bowling partner and co-songwriter Ronnie Bowman, whose own career in Nashville as an artist, songwriter and producer is impressive in its own right.

Rambler's Choice is traditional, Appalachia-styled bluegrass to be sure with its soaring harmonies and driven by Wilkerson's jangly banjo. Yet the 12-song collection, anchored by the Massey-Bowman-penned "Poor Mountain" and Massey-Alan Perdue's "Man in Red Camels" (he handles lead vocals on that one) bears a contemporary bent, occasionally leaning toward country while remaining firmly rooted in their beloved Blue Ridge Mountains. They trot out "Leaving Baker County" from the Tom T. Hall collection and include Bennie and Vallie Cain's "The Wolf is at the Door" and conclude with the rip-snortin' Bowman number, "Steel Rail Rider." One of the more contemporary cuts also is one of Sisk's favorites. Bowman wrote "Little Bit of This, Little Bit of That" and had made a demo of it to pitch to country artists. "I heard it at Ronnie's house and said, 'I wish I could do it,' and Ronnie agreed," Sisk says.

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