When Junior Sisk took the stage Thursday night, it had been eighteen years to the month since he had played at the Down Home in Johnson City, TN. That time, it was playing with Wyatt Rice and Santa Cruz; last night, it was fronting his award winning band Ramblers Choice. After two sets full of the best hard driving, lonesome, and of course “pitiful” (as Junior puts it) bluegrass music I’ve heard in a long time, it’s a sure bet that bluegrass fans in the Tri-Cities won’t ever let him go that long without visiting again.
With a mixture of hits both old and new, favorite Gospel songs, and some classic standards, Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice kept the crowd captivated throughout the entire show. They hit the stage driving as hard as they could, and rarely let up. Jason Davis’ banjo playing is a centerpiece of that sound, and he was in fine form last night. He had people cheering as he ripped through instrumentals like Jesse James from the band’s most recent album, and Bully of the Town, a tune off of his new solo release. Davis was also the source of a bit of onstage humor last night, as Sisk introduced the Gospel number Education from on High by saying that Davis was going to sing. With a bit of a smile, Davis made his way to the microphone about midway through the chorus to drop in bass vocals on two words: “but he.” Sisk later joked that Davis sometimes forgot the words.
Sisk’s vocals, as usual, were excellent, and showed once again why he so deserved this year’s IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year award. Highlights included old favorites like Blue Side of the Blue Ridge, recent hits A Far Cry From Lester and Earl and The Story of the Day That I Died, and the stripped down Gospel song The Lowest Valley (which was a bit faster than I’ve heard Sisk do it before). One of my personal favorites was Drinking at the Water Hole, a Larry Sparks song from the 1970s that the band included on their last album. Sisk introduced it as a “waltz,” but if it was, it was surely the most powerful waltz I’ve ever heard.
One of the best things about seeing Sisk’s live show is that he doesn’t just rely on songs from his latest album, nor does he pull almost completely from bluegrass standards. I think he hit on almost every album he’s ever been a part of, as well as throwing in a couple bluegrass classics and a few more obscure pieces. He also sang his most recent single, Wild Mountain Honey, with Jason Tomlin doing a fine job filling in for Joe Mullins on the high harmonies. Tomlin also sang lead on a couple of old Jimmy Martin numbers, and his exuberant bass playing helped keep the band rock solid throughout the show.
Though he stood in the background for most of the night, the band’s sound wouldn’t be complete without Billy Hawks’ fiddling. Hawks is simply one of the finest traditional fiddle players around, and everything he played Thursday night was both tasteful and skilled. Some of his best work was on his original Adriane, yet another strong instrumental that allowed both Hawks and the rest of the band to let loose.
It was my first time seeing Ramblers Choice with their new mandolin player, Johnathan Dillon, and it was easy to see he is a perfect fit for the group. He has a great command of both the mandolin and the traditional style Sisk is known for, and is just about the best mandolin player I’ve seen with Sisk. In fact, Junior’s wife Susan told me that Dillon is one of the only musicians she’s ever met who was able to just walk in their house and play anything and everything Sisk has ever recorded. At 18, Dillon is a relative newcomer to the bluegrass scene, but his playing is solid and skillful, as he showed in particular on a fiery version of Daybreak in Dixie.
Watching Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice perform, it’s easy to see how much they really love bluegrass music, and how much they want to honor the musicians who laid the groundwork for the genre. However, they don’t just copy old songs. They put their own spin on them, give them new life, and find new songs that fit in perfectly alongside them. There’s not another band out there right now that sounds just like Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice. If you haven’t seen a show yet, maybe you should.