Joe Mullins: The Stories We Tell

When new music arrives from Joe Mullins and The Radio Ramblers, you can pretty much guarantee hearing traditional bluegrass songs about love, regret and hope, with a bit of Gospel added for good measure. You’ll hear tight harmonies and clean picking. And when the music stops, you’ll have a contented smile.

The Story We Tell, from Rebel Records, is all of that. It’s a perfect 12-song selection to enjoy in the middle of this wacky winter.

But, like a box of Cracker Jack, there’s always a little something extra in a Joe Mullins CD, a prize for opening the package and giving a listen. In 2016, the surprise was a spectacular arrangement of Will The Circle Be Unbroken, in which the band was joined by The Isaacs singing the original lyrics and a slightly different melody than we’re used to hearing on the legendary Will The Circle records from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and friends. If that didn’t make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, you’re colder than the weather these last few days.

This time, those who open The Story We Tell will find several prizes.

The most noteworthy for me was the presence of percussion – drums! – on I Heard That Train. It stood out because, well, it didn’t stand out. It was probably the second or third listen before I heard what Jason Barie, usually the band’s standout fiddler, was adding. It wasn’t that the percussion was buried in the mix. It’s that it was so natural that it didn’t sound off. If drums are going to keep popping up in bluegrass – and they are, so get used to it – this is a tasteful blueprint for how it should sound.

The second prize Joe delivers is in the song selection. He always picks great songs, but this time around he pushed the tempo on a number of them. There’s a place for ballads and waltzes, for sure, but a steady diet of them gets bland in a hurry. Yet, more and more bands seem content to deliver that steady diet or slow of midtempo numbers. 

So when Joe’s banjo raced into the opening number, Long Gone Out West Blues, I reacted like a lost hiker stumbling across water in the desert. I wanted more. And the band delivered. Other speedy favorites include I’m Nowhere Bound and The Fiddle Man’s Delight.

They’re not all fast, of course, just as they don’t all have drums. As an arranger and producer, Mullins always seems to get the balance just right. I’m not talking about the fader knobs, but the overall feel of the record. There’s a good mix of fast and slow, secular and spiritual, fun and deep, hopeful and sad.

The best of the sad category is I Could Have Gone Right, in which a prisoner on death row laments that he “could have gone right just as easy as I went wrong.”

My favorite cut on the record is If I’d Have Wrote That Song. Working stiffs everywhere, not just songwriters, can identify with the frustrated dreams brought to life when Duane Sparks sings, “I wouldn’t be driving this truck if I’d have wrote that song. This old baloney sandwich would be filet mignon.”

The final prize in the package isn’t something in the music. It’s about the music. Liner notes, generally, are disappearing, and good ones are hard to find. But the ones here, by Craig Havighurst, are gems. This is, I’m pretty sure, the first time I’ve written specifically about liner notes in the nine years that I’ve been reporting for Bluegrass Today. And there’s a reason that I am writing about these: They are, by far, the best I’ve read in that time.

I won’t selectively quote from Craig’s fine writing. You need to get the record and read the entire note to do it justice. Suffice it to say he writes compellingly about differences in musical tastes, in religion and, yes, politics. He points out that he and Joe probably come from different sides of the spectrum. But he also points out that it doesn’t matter. Grown men can disagree and still get along. It’s the music that’s important. 

It doesn’t matter that there are drums. It doesn’t matter that the singer might not agree with you about, well, anything. It doesn’t matter that you and he don’t see eye to eye on theological points.

What matters is this: Is the music good? Thank you, Craig, for pointing that out in a compelling way. And thank you, Joe, for making sure the music is good.

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About the Author

David Morris

David Morris, an award-winning songwriter and journalist, has written for Bluegrass Today since its inception. He joined its predecessor, The Bluegrass Blog, in 2010. His 40-year career in journalism included more than 13 years with The Associated Press, a stint as chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, and several top editing jobs in Washington, D.C. He is a life member of IBMA and the DC Bluegrass Union. He and co-writers won the bluegrass category in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest in 2015.