Take the crisp, clean instrumental licks that are a staple of Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers, add in almost heavenly three- and four-part harmonies and – just in case all of that isn’t enough – dashes of Ricky Skaggs, Sharon White, Rhonda Vincent and Becky, Sonya and Ben Isaacs, and what do you get?
Sacred Memories, which can stand up to any gospel recording I’ve heard in the last five years and could end up as one of the best bluegrass CDs 0f 2016, gospel or otherwise.
A Ramblers record is almost always cause for happy ears. This one, though, goes a step farther and is cause for happy souls. Sure, it’s uplifting. That’s a given in gospel. But this one could probably make a grumpy angel sing (if there are, in fact, such things as grumpy angels).
The collection starts strong, with fiddle and banjo driving When The Sun of Life Goes Down. The quartet harmonies are stellar, with Joe’s soaring tenor part ringing like a bell.
That’s followed by my favorite song on the CD, All Dressed Up, in which a farmer trades his bib overalls for the suit he got married in and later wore to his wife’s funeral. This time, it’s for his funeral and a much-awaited reunion with her. A trio nails the chorus with these lines: “You may not recognize him in these clothes, but he’s all dressed up with someplace to go.”
Other standouts – I could easily include nearly every song from the project on this list – include Sacred Memories, the Dolly Parton classic on which Joe, Ricky and Sharon share the lead and harmonies. I Hope We Walk the Last Mile Together, on which Joe trades verses with Rhonda, and the powerful Randall Hylton song, The First Word in Heaven is He. Mike Terry sings the lead with authority, as he does on a handful of others.
The record closes with Will the Circle Be Unbroken, the timeless standard we’ve all heard a million times before. I was predisposed to be underwhelmed, but I have never been more wrong about a song before.
This arrangement – demonstrating yet another talent of the leader of this band – relies on the original lyrics from the 19th Century, not the more familiar words that we learned from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on three glorious Will the Circle albums. It also outlines a concept that more bands should adopt: When the vocals are great, you don’t need a lot of ornamentation. In this case, there’s a short, spare piano introduction before the bulk of the song is delivered a cappella. Joe sings the lead, joined on harmonies by Ben, Becky and Sonya Issacs.
You won’t be able to sing along at first because the melody is altered a bit. But that’s a blessing, actually, because you’ll be able to enjoy the intricate weaving of the three parts into a tapestry of near perfection.
Near perfection? That’s right. I’m willing to reserve perfection for the Angel Band. But I’m also thrilled to know that music this sweet and powerful can be heard before we get there.