HEARTACHES AND DREAMS
Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice
Coming back strong from their acclaimed 2008 long player, Blue Side of The Blue Ridge, Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice may well have topped that outstanding effort with Heartaches and Dreams. Ramblers Choice was reconstituted on the 2008 album after a ten-year sabbatical, and all but mandolinist Chris Harris return here; Jason Tomlin steps in on mandolin and makes his presence felt immediately, on the album opening barnburner, “Train Without a Track,” a clever breakup song comparing a relationship’s end to a wayward iron horse, in a stellar arrangement that gives Tomlin, fiddler Billy Harris and banjo man Darrell Wilkinson equal opportunity solo spots at a couple of junctures before the enterprise comes to a quick stop.
The title here is telling. As rare as concept albums are in country music, they’re even more unusual in bluegrass. In and of itself, it matters not whether an album has a binding theme if the storyline isn’t fully realized in song. No worries here, as Heartaches and Dreams passes this test in powerful fashion. The song selection leans heavily in favor of heartaches, with the dreams expressed most effectively in the gospel numbers: on Pearlie Mullins’s “The Lowest Valley,” Sisk’s deliberately strummed acoustic guitar is the stark, lone instrumental support for his keening affirmation of faith in God’s promise of eternal life, with Tomlin, Hawks and Tim Massey (who both plays and sings bass) blending with their leader on the choruses in stirring, bottom-rich harmony of the most moving sort. Closing out the album as they came in—on fire—the band roars through Dottie Swan’s jubilant “Let the Light Shine Down on Me,” easily one of this year’s most memorable gospel performances. With Sisk taking the lead, the band's furious, flawless picking enhances the writer’s message of implementing personal changes in order to receive God’s grace and guidance—“there’s some lessons I must learn/there’s some bridges I must burn/so let the light shine down on me”—with Wilkerson’s eagerly rolling banjo and Tomlinson’s impressively fleet mandolin solos bookending Hawks’s eager fiddle turn, and everyone joining in on a the triumphant chorus.
Junior Sisk and two members of Ramblers Choice (Jason Tomlin, left; Tim Massey, behind Junior) perform Pearlie Mullins’s ‘The Lowest Valley,’ from the band’s new album, Heartaches and Dreams, May 27, 2010.
Odd thing about the Heartaches portion of the album is its music upbeat nature: the abovementioned “Train Without a Track” sprints out of the gate and has all the clever wordplay you’d expect of a Tom T. and Dixie Hall song, which it is; though it does have a social commentary aspect to it, Daniel Sawyer’s “Working Hard Ain’t Hardly Working Anymore” (talk about clever wordplay) certainly takes a wry look at a relationship broken beyond repair, although its toe-tapping quality might distract you a bit from the message—only a bit, however, because Junior’s expressive, forceful vocal betrays more than a little of the ache otherwise hidden in the sprightly arrangement; another frisky number, “You Broke Your Promise,” by Curly Ray Cline and Paul Williams, steps lively down a boulevard of broken dreams on fuel provided by successive, penetrating solos courtesy banjo, fiddle and mandolin intermingled with the bluesy, close harmonized choruses and Sisk’s accusatory lead. Finding humor in the least likely places, such as Bill Castle's "Black Hearse Following Me,," Junior has a terrific time painting a vocal portrait of a gent whose love of the drink finds him suggesting that reports of his demise may not be premature, in a genial, old-timey moment so vibrant with warm spirits and good feeling it might ought to be covered by Sweet Sunny South as well—heck, Junior’s even a dead ringer for SSS’s Bill Powers on this cut.
All of which is a long way of saying the band has got it together beautifully on Heartaches And Dreams. The songs share a common narrative thread, but no two are alike otherwise, either in vocal interpretation or musical attack; the arrangements hew to traditional approaches but in that framework allow these gifted musicians to show what they’re made of; and, always, you can’t fake the feeling, so the conviction Junior Sisk and company bring to their work, as well as the love for it, is the icing on quite a tasty cake.
Sisk’s website (http://www.juniorsiskandramblerschoice.com/) indicates the recent departures of both Wilkerson and Hawks from Ramblers Choice, and the addition of Jason Davis (banjo) and Greg Moore (fiddle) in their place. Whatever the lineup, another slice would be most appreciated, Junior. —David McGee