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New band rambles on

By Jonathan Colcord, December 1998

Ever since Junior Sisk got over the fact that the large object covered up in the back of his dad's pickup truck wasn't a motorcycle, he's been hooked on bluegrass.

The thing in the truck was an upright bass, a gift for his 14th birthday.

"Going all the way back, my cousin, Larry Massey, along with my dad are responsible for teaching me to love this music like I do," says Sisk.

Now a superb bluegrass guitarist, vocalist and songwriter, Sisk leads Rambler's Choice, which released "Sounds of the Mountains," their Rounder debut, in October.

The music moves between uptempo driving bluegrass and country-inspired songs.

The band - then consisting of Sisk, Timmy Massey, Alan Perdue, Elmer Burchett and Jimmy VanCleve - arose out of the ashes of Wyatt Rice & Santa Cruz with the Santa Cruz part largely becoming Rambler's Choice.

Growing up around bluegrass because of his father's local jamming and the ever-present sound of the Stanley Brothers on the record player at home, Sisk was destined to have the music in his soul.

Sisk recalls as much as 95 percent of his father's record collection being comprised of old Stanley Brothers records.

This placed an indelible stamp on Sisk's musical being - "My influences come first and foremost from the Stanley Brothers - I live and breathe them - and a few others such as the Johnson Mountain Boys and Keith Whitley."

Sisk has even been compared to the late Carter Stanley.

Soon Sisk would be tagging along with the extended family to play area shows and jam sessions as a member of Dreamin' Creek.

"Dad, Larry, Timmy and I played dozens of festivals and fiddlers conventions all over the Virginias and Carolinas," Sisk says of his father and cousins Tim and Larry Massey, who are brothers.

Later, toward the end of Dreamin' Creek, Tim Massey, joined on as a vocalist and mandolin player. Tim Massey would begin to hone his songwriting skills writing mostly in the folk and pop genre.

Sisk and Massey would eventually join on with Wyatt Rice & Santa Cruz.

"Santa Cruz began when Tim and I met Wyatt at a party in late 1994," Sisk says. "He liked our sound, and we began playing together - Wyatt, Timmy and I are all fairly local to each other but Elmer Burchett came to us from Waddy, Ky. He stayed with us three years."

Massey says Rice was especially impressed with their vocal abilities. It was also at the forming of Santa Cruz that Massey opted to learn to play the upright bass with much success.

Wyatt Rice & Santa Cruz produced one highly-acclaimed recording, "Picture In A Tear" for Rounder.

Sisk, along with bassist Massey and banjo player Burchett parted ways with Rice to form their own group in August 1997 due to stylistic differences.

Rice wanted to explore the contemporary and progressive side of bluegrass while Sisk and Massey wanted to remain true to their traditional roots.

Massey, Burchett and Sisk were joined by Alan Perdue on mandolin and Jim VanCleve on fiddle to form their new band.

Initially calling the band Straight Ahead, a trip to the copyright office found an all-girl jazz band from Michigan already using the moniker. The band used that name for a couple of gigs before searching for a new name.

Rounder spearheaded an Internet contest to find the band a name. Over 800 people submitted suggestions, but it ended with Sisk and the present name of the group. There were some colorful suggestions to wade through.

"Some of our favorite potential band names were, Old Blind Sow, Dixie Breeze, Blue Lonesome & Lonesome II," Sisk says.

The disc was completed in October 1997, but the delay in releasing the music resulted from a variety of technical tie-ups.

In that time, the band went through its own changes making yet another recording foremost on their minds.

In November 1997, VanCleve left. Burchett followed him in April. VanCleve joined Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver and is now with Mountain Heart, Adam Steffey's new group. Burchett, who had been commuting eight hours for Rambler's Choices' affairs went in to play more with Dale Ann Bradley and Coon Creek.

Alan's brother, Sandy, joined Rambler's Choice on banjo.

While Sisk has had his songs recorded by likes of the Lonesome River Band, his writing is absent from "Sounds Of The Mountains."

"I guess the songs that have gone on the first two albums just seemed to fit together, and mine wasn't one of them yet," he says.

Massey and Lonesome River Band member Ronnie Bowman dominate the writing. Bowman and Massey have been collaborating heavily as songwriters for quite some time, most notably on the IBMA award-winning title cut from Bowman's debut solo album "Cold Virginia Night," which Sisk recorded on. Massey says "Cold Virginia Night" was the first time "I actually set out to write a song that I meant to be a bluegrass song. It came so easy to me that I just fell in love with it."

Burchett and Harry C. Sisk Sr., Junior's father, wrote other material.

"My father writes regularly and we have recorded several of his songs (in the past) such as 'Picture in a Tear,' 'Sweetest Rose,' (recently) 'Sounds of the Mountains' and others," Junior Sisk says.

The work of Ralph Stanley seems to play a major role with "Shotgun Slade" and "Poor Rambler."

The band hopes to hit the studio soon for its second album and also hit the concert circuit.

"I intend to play as much traditional music as I can, as that is where my heart is, with a few originals thrown in now and again," says Sisk.