There's a direct line from classic country music to the bluegrass traditionalists, and Junior Sisk walks it better than anyone in the business. Call it high lonesome honky-tonk, a distillation of Bill Monroe's attitude into the heart of the legacy left behind by George Jones. Sisk and company are still a bluegrass band in practice as well as sound, with the standard drum-less banjo-fiddle-mando-bass lineup intact, and the pickers in Ramblers Choice are among the best in their respective fields. Jason Davis in particular is a notable presence here on banjo for songs such as "Our Darling's Gone," where the banjo propels the track forward.
The reason to pay attention here, however, is the voice of Sisk, IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year for 2013. Without the dulcet tones of Larry Sparks or the reedy authenticity of Del McCoury, Sisk nonetheless imparts personality and emotion into every song in ways that mirror the greats of country music such as Haggard or Jones.
Sisk is a great song picker, as well, and the set he's arranged here is among the band's best. The opening country flavor of "Honky Tonked To Death" sets up Ronnie Bowman's "Don't Think About It Too Long" as well as the other Bowman composition "A Cold, Empty, Bottle" - now that's a country song title.
Dixie and Tom T. Hall are well known as prolific bluegrass songwriters now even though their roots are in country music; Sisk delivers an impassioned take on their "Walk Slow," an ode to self-confidence and being secure in the life you live. On the other side of the spectrum, the band has fun with the Monkees tune "What Am I Doing Hanging Round" even as a reading of the credits reveals the song was written by country-folk-rocker Michael Martin Murphey.
Even with all the country influences, Ramblers Choice is still a fine bluegrass band at its core, and nothing shows that better than the appropriately fall-like title and easy, loping tempo of "Frost on the Bluegrass." As long as there are bands such as Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice, one suspects that frost won't be allowed to hang around for long before a hot solo or two melt it away.