Saturday evening at the Ocean Lakes Family Campground Bluegrass Weekend I had the pleasure of catching both sets performed by Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice. I hadn’t seen Junior perform since he was with Blueridge, but he has always been one of my favorite traditional bluegrass voices. I was expecting traditional bluegrass, and the crowd and I received just that, but with an energy level that blew us all away, even when Hurricane Irene could not.
I made a point to get a few minutes alone with Junior, and chat about the band, the music, and what is next for them.
T.J.: What’s new, Junior? (It had been awhile since I had done this, I realize it is a weak question.)
Junior: Our new project comes out September 27th, called The Heart of a Song, on Rebel Records, and we have the Bluegrass Cruise coming up in October. Other than that, just runnin’ up and down the road.
T.J.: There is a lot of talk, mostly on the forums, about defining what is and what isn’t traditional bluegrass. You certainly sound traditional. Are you conscious of that? Or are you simply playing and singing what you like, regardless of a label? (Better question).
Junior: I certainly am conscious of it. Absolutely. I want to keep it straight down the middle, traditional bluegrass. That’s all I have ever done, and all I will ever do is traditional bluegrass. And actually we have a song on the new project, it will be the first release called, “A Far Cry From Lester and Earl”, that kind of talks about that, which direction the music is going in. I’m not against any progressive music, I like it all, but we are keeping it straight traditional, I can’t do anything else. And all of these guys love playing real grass, and I think that’s why we are so busy.
If I may interject something here, and I’m pretty sure I can, because I’m the one writing this, the last time I saw Junior perform was with Blueridge, as I mentioned. I got the feeling at that time that Junior was the singer for Baucom & Bibey’s band. Now I’m sure that Terry and Alan would say that was not the case, and that Junior was as important as anyone else in the band, and I’m also sure that they would mean that from their hearts. But that wasn’t the feeling I got at the time, although it was just a feeling.
When you hear this band, you know, first off, that this is Junior Sisk’s band, and that you are witnessing the kind of power and energy only a few of the masters had. I’m talking wide open Larry Sparks, raw power. I’ve only seen Jimmy Martin on video, never live, but that kind of power and energy.
With that in mind, note Junior’s answer to my next question:
T.J.: Tell me a little bit about your band, they bring a ton of energy to the stage. (OK, that isn’t a question at all, but he does respond with a statement to my statement.)
Junior: It’s a whole lot of fun to pick with guys that have a whole lot of energy. I sing real hard, and I play real hard, and these guys play hard too, and they really get into the show. I remember the first time I ever saw the Johnson Mountain Boys, they ran to the microphones to kick off their set, and just one song after another. And that’s what we are trying to bring back, that energy and excitement. I’m not the greatest talker, and I wish I had someone for the band to do the M.C. work that was a little more entertaining, but none of the other guys want to talk, they want to pick, so I just tell folks they are going to hear a lot more picking than talking.
If I may interject again, I didn’t hear one single person after the show say, “That Junior isn’t much of an M.C.” But I did hear more than one person say, “Did you catch Junior’s set? Those boys were on fire!” And Chris Davis, Sweet Tater Tomlin, Jason Davis and Billy Hawks deserve a great deal of credit for that energy. Mostly young guns, (sorry Billy, shouldn’t have put your birth date on the website) they are all top level musicians, and they are all wound up and ready to play. But Junior deserves credit for putting these guys together, and to sticking to the sound that he feels is the true soul of bluegrass.
T.J.: Is this where you want to be? Riding up and down the road, as you said?
Junior: People tell me I have the best job in the world, but they don’t realize what it takes to do this. We left last night’s show at midnight, and got here at 12:30 this afternoon, and had to be on stage at 3:30. Folks don’t realize that. Most of our time is spent on the dangerous road. The picking isn’t a job, it’s having fun. The hard part is driving up and down the road. But this job has its advantages. I love to hunt and fish, and most folks are working during the week so I have the run of the woods and the waters. But I just love the music. I thought about hanging it up after Blueridge, thought about just going to work for Lowes, but it’s really in my blood, and I’m glad I stuck with it. We’ve put out three records since then, and we are just having a blast. I’ve got a great band to work with, and a great record label, I couldn’t be happier.
Lowes loss is our gain. If Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice are runnin’ up and down the road anywhere near you, you owe it to yourself to go and see them, whether you are a hardcore traditionalist or a progressive ‘grasser. Either way, you will leave the show a fan of this band.