The opening track of Junior Sisk’s new album, Poor Boy’s Pleasure, kicks of with a moonshining song. I know! I’m as shocked as you are.
Sisk, the bluegrass pride of Franklin County, VA is among the most renowned vocalists in our music, and has been turning out powerful recordings of hard-driving traditional bluegrass for the past ten years or so. His home in the Ferrum region of Franklin County was for quite some time the center of non-government liquor in the United States, also known as untaxed whiskey, or simply moonshine for short. The distilling and running of clear liquor in those hills has left a deep impact of the folklore and the culture of the area, which was once noted for the heaviest sugar consumption in the whole United States.
Lonnie Ray launches this album, an uptempo number from Mike O’Reilly, about a moonshine runner trying to outsmart the sheriff traveling the mountain back roads delivering his ‘shine. O’Reilly also wrote the album’s second track, the first single Longneck Blues, which has been a staple on our Bluegrass Today Weekly Airplay Chart this past six months, featuring a guest vocal appearance from Junior’s former Franklin County neighbor, Ronnie Bowman.
A complaint had been heard of late that some of Junior’s recent releases hadn’t included material as strong as some of his earlier recordings. But you can’t lodge that charge here. Sisk has chosen a consistently excellent roster of songs that suit his soulful, rough-edged voice to perfection. Bill Castle and Don Rigsby contribute Hang A Wreath, a mournful, slow waltz of regret, and Ed Williams supplied Land On Our Feet, an optimistic barnburner about taking chances. I Watched You Go from Dan Wells is a bouncy take on the old “go ahead and leave” song.
Junior takes a country swing turn for Walking In The Blue Ridge written by Milan Miller and Thomm Jutz, and Cold In Carolina reminds this reviewer of the sound Sisk got when he first popped up with Wyatt Rice in 1996, in a song from Terry Foust and Daniel Salyer.
Special songs to my ear include In This World But Not Of It, a Gospel recollection with low-tuned banjo from Jeff McClellan and Daniel Salyer with an old time modal feel, Jimmy, JD & Paul, a nice mid-tempo grasser from Tim Stafford and Barry Bales about that classic edition of Jimmy Martin’s band with Paul Williams on tenor, and the title track which sounds like it could have been written as Junior’s biography by Tim Massey, Dixie Hall, Tom T. Hall, and Junior. That last is a prototypical Junior Sisk track and is sure to become a fan favorite.
Junior wrote one for the album, What About Me Lord, a plea for forgiveness performed with a simple mandolin and guitar accompaniment. Things come to a close with a a rip-roaring’ version of the old favorite Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow, where Junior’s plaintive voice sells the story of a hard working man taking off a day to get married.
Rambler’s Choice plays their role perfectly, executing just about every sort of traditional bluegrass with flair and at a level of near perfection. Jason Davis remains among the most exciting banjo players in our music, as does Jonathan Dillon on mandolin. Jamie Harper on fiddle has an almost out of control vibe throughout, as if he could go off at any moment, and Kameron Keller provides appropriately subtle bass on every track as well as a solid tenor vocal. An unexpected surprise is producer/engineer Aaron Ramsey on guitar, a move necessitated by Junior’s neck surgery followed by a hand injury during the time this project was being recorded. Aaron gives a little extra “umphf” to the rhythm, with more syncopated bass runs that we normally hear from Ramblers Choice.
And what can you say about the singing of Junior Sisk? He is a treasure, a direct connection to the type of bluegrass that The Stanley Brothers recorded in the early days. We may have lost James King, but we still have Larry Sparks, and we can expect a good many years more where we can hear Junior Sisk. Old time bluegrass isn’t going anywhere.
Poor Boy’s Pleasure will please any fans of traditional mountain music.