Junior Sisk has been producing bluegrass music of the highest caliber since the mid-1990s. Many fans first heard his soulful voice on Picture In A Tear, a Rounder release for the band, Wyatt Rice & Santa Cruz in 1996, though grassers in southwestern Virginia had been hearing him for years at jams and festivals in the area. A few of his songs had been recorded by Lonesome River Band in the early part of the decade, and his name was being whispered widely in the upper echelons of bluegrass.
Since his solo career has taken off, Sisk has released one successful recording after another, but perhaps none as wholly satisfying as this newest, The Mountains Are Calling Me Home. It’s just a fact that his singing has never been more persuasive, nor his band more ripe for the sort of plaintive and evocative songs where he excels.
With only the outside help of Aaron Ramsey on guitar, Junior and Ramblers Choice put the perfect wallop on 11 songs certain to please anyone who enjoys contemporary traditional bluegrass. And though the focus is on Junior’s voice on every track, it truly is a band effort with a fierce, driving accompaniment from top to bottom, and allowing Junior the freedom to concentrate only on singing seems to free him up to do his best.
He’s selected some very strong new material from writers like Daniel Salyer, Wayne Winkle, Tim Stafford, Ronnie Bowman and others, and mixed them in with a couple of Jimmy Martin classics for a powerful statement from Sisk. He had already made a pitch for being one of the top singers in our business before this album, but at this point, it’s no longer in doubt.
Some readers will have heard the first single, What Goes Around Comes Around from Salyer, which has received a good bit of radio play over the past few months. It’s a happy-sounding song of schadenfreude, reveling in another’s misery in learning of their heartbreak after having delivered some to the singer. Salyer also contributed Shape Up Or Ship Out, a highly-Martinesque number with a swingy bounce, a sound that gets rammed home with the record’s final track, a rip-roarin’ version of You’ll Be A Lost Ball which Jimmy cut in 1956 and released as the B side of Hit Parade Of Love.
They also slay another Martin song, What A Way To Go, written by Jim Munday, in as close to a definitive interpretation of a Jimmy Martin song as one could imagine. Special note goes to banjo picker Jason Davis, who plays it in the iconic style that J.D. Crowe gave to Jimmy’s music back in the ’50s. He effortlessly recreates Crowe’s take on the Earl Scruggs style with an ease that is marvelous to behold.
I’m Not Listening Anymore, a new song from Bowman and Stafford, also gets a bouncy treatment for its story about a lover who has realized he’s been treated wrong. The Stanley Brothers are represented with Darling Do Know Who Loves You, which Junior delivers with all the passion of Carter’s original recording, though played at a faster tempo.
The title track, which comes from another junior, J.R. Satterwhite Jr, is a bluesy, mid-tempo song in a more modern format, with a story about a man who leaves his home in the hills only to realize his error in time. That same sound is delivered on It’s So Cold, a Wayne Winkle song which Sisk cut before with Blueridge back in 1999.
Dying To Live Again offers a hopeful note, where a mother tells her family that she has to leave them as she lays dying. She describes her first view of heaven in this song written by Curly Putman, famous as the author of The Green Green Grass Of Home, and Joe D. Lomax.
Each track is a strong effort, and fans of Junior and his band can’t fail to appreciate The Mountains Are Calling Me Home. Sisk is fine voice throughout, and contributions from Jonathan Dillon on mandolin and Jamie Harper on fiddle are stellar. Both of them, along with Davis, deserve consideration in IBMA voting this year.
Were I feeling obligated to find some flaw in this project, it would be tough to discover one. This is a fantastic album.