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Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice

The Heart of a Song – 2011 (Rebel)

Reviewed by Kevin Oliver

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The opening track of Junior Sisk's new disc is one of those 'state of bluegrass' songs that reminds the listener from the start that Rambler's Choice is a traditional bluegrass band, not one of those contemporary hybrids that are A Far Cry From Lester and Earl, as the chorus says in reference to Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs of the Stanley Brothers and their own fame. Never mind that Flatt & Scruggs were one of the most successful charting bluegrass acts ever, popular with those who otherwise didn't listen to the genre; like its country-concerned counterpart Murder on Music Row, it's the way they played and the sounds they made which are endangered.

Endangered everywhere but on a Junior Sisk album, apparently, because it doesn't get much more traditional or classic-sounding in the bluegrass world than Sisk and company. Adding former Blueridge bandmate Jason Davis on banjo this time around and featuring Rhonda Vincent on a lovely duet, the country-flavored The Sound of Your Name, there's little to separate these songs from the Stanley Brothers other than the modern production values.

For all his traditional focus, Sisk isn't afraid to draw from contemporary sources for material. That Vincent duet, for example, is a newly written product of Nashville writers John Pennell and Barry Tashian, while Dixie and Tom T. Hall give him what turns into a solo vocal turn on the Ralph Stanley-esque The Grave Robber. On that song, like the others, the key is that all of these sound as if they could have been written a couple generations ago. Some, like the Stanley Brothers chestnut Sea of Regret, were, but most are new-four of them come from members of Rambler's Choice, including the blazing fiddle tune Adriane, written by fiddler Billy Hawks.

What's at the heart of these songs, however, is the unmistakable voice of Sisk, a worthy devotee of the high lonesome Stanley Brothers sound who has truly taken it to his own heart all these years.