Junior Sisk: A bluegrass ramble
It is not so much that I wish to contemplate the future of bluegrass, though it seems rather less assured that it did in the heady days following O Brother. (But, then, everything seems less assured than it did ten years ago.) But even in bluegrass, which venerates its elders as if Shinto were somehow an Appalachian religion -- the temptation lurks -- the impulse remains to find the next big thing. Or, at least, the next voice to carry the tradition, bluegrass being at best a medium-sized thing. (It's not a question of who's gonna wear their shoes; it's who's gonna wear their suits. Anyway...) The tradition. For a few long months toward the end of the 1940s, Bill Monroe and a gifted band of sidemen solidified the sound he’d spent the decade hunting for. Perhaps it is arguable, but it is an argument without point, for Bill Monroe (and, yes, of course, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and Cedric Rainwater and the rest) invented bluegrass. You know all this, of course. We are come to the point where even the men who played with Monroe are contemplating their curtain calls. Del McCoury is, after all, 71 years old, and he was one of the young guns. Ralph Stanley is 83. Jesse McReynolds just turned 81. Sonny Osborne is about to turn 73. And Earl Scruggs is 86. All those men could sing with a feral intensity that is hard to match, as if the devil were stomping on their tail as god sought to lift them hard into heaven, their guts laid open for the singing. This is why I have liked the music since I was a small boy, since before punk rock. They sang from hunger. They made art because it made a better living, no matter how difficult, than they might otherwise made. They did it because they could, and because they had to. It’s not that I have a need to anoint. Nor that I could. But John Duffy is long gone; Ricky Skaggs and Rhonda Vincent mean well enough, I think -- I hope -- but learned too much during their years on Music Row. There is a gloss on bluegrass. I am tempted to blame it on IIIrd Tyme Out, partly because their name always bugged me, but mostly because it is their name I associate with the gloss. It’s a band some people revere, and I mean no ill by tarring with this feather, but they are not what I come to the music for. There is a gloss over bluegrass, and it is the same gloss which plagues jazz, which may already have killed the blues. Both blues and jazz have so divorced themselves from their original cultural milieu that they have no place to survive but the academy, I suppose. Bluegrass has not done that, and has (to be fair) adapted to the changing culture which supports the music. Still, my newly indolent listening habits remain dissatisfied, in the main, with the bluegrass I hear and do not already know. This is not simply a function of my age and withdrawal from the world. At least I think not. It is now possible to learn to be a phenomenally adept bluegrass picker, though it remains (if the audio evidence available is accurate) surpassingly difficult to pull those pickers all together into something which sounds like a band. The best pickers, like Chris Thile and Mark O’Connor and the cello player who left Crooked Still, are tempted by broader horizons. Tradition is not a concrete thing. It is a foundation, yes, but (even: like the Constitution) it is also a steadily evolving thing. So it is not my wish for bluegrass to stay put. It IS my wish that it not lose its edge, that it not succumb to the stultifying mediocrity of the middle class, of the suburbs. That it not plow under its cornfields and cornpone in favor of building another Wal-Mart-friendly genre of music. No matter the rewards, nor the siren lure of Cracker Barrel. Which somehow brings me to the new album offered up by Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice, titled Heartaches and Dreams. Let me be clear (and fair, all around): I do not mention Mr. Sisk because I believe he is the future of bluegrass. I mention him simply because I have found this record to be rewarding listening, his songs and ensemble having led me to think all the thoughts I wrote above, and then some. The truth is that all those years listening as assiduously as I might, I don’t know Mr. Sisk’s previous work. If I have been recipient of his previous recordings, I did not keep them, and for years I kept almost everything that might even possibly be of interest down the road. (One reaps the whirlwind when moving, eh?) Nor do I recognize his sidemen on this record, which is also somewhat unusual, as pickers tend to shift in and out of bands often enough that the good ones become familiar names. (They are rather like cats, always looking for a second home and the possibility of salmon.) They are, then, Billy Hawks (fiddle), Darrell Wilkerson (banjo), Jason Tomlin (mandolin, vocals), Junior Sisk (guitar, vocals), and Tim Massey (bass, vocals). Hah! My ISP finally decided to work (temporarily; for some reason I can't italicize tonight, but I can change the bold codes...I think...), and so I’m able to conjure up Sisk’s website (can't link, and I actually tried), only to learn on the homepage that Hawks and Wilkerson have left the band. Sisk’s bio says he came up writing songs for the Lonesome River Band, sang with Wyatt Rice and Santa Cruz (not on my radar), struck out on his own with Ramblers Choice and took a side road or two with the Lost and Found and BlueRidge. He’s from the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia. Fair enough. I would commend this record for two particular virtues. First, the songwriting throughout is exemplary (and Sisk co-wrote only one track of the twelve). These are country songs, the kinds of things Ricky Skaggs and his fellow New Traditionalists took to the charts in the 1980s, and which Nashville has largely eschewed since, unless someone like Brad Paisley wants to prove his cred. (Which is fine, by the way.) The songs range across the bluegrass traditions, from Dottie Swan’s gospel “Let the Light Shine Down” and Pearlie Mullins’ “The Lowest Valley” to the gamblers’ honky-tonk morality tale of “Bullets Always Win (a Matt Jones composition), to the broken hearts of “Guns, Coins and Jewelry” (Tim Massey and Rick Pardue), “The Laugh’s On Me” (Clyde Pitts), or Working Hard Ain’t Hardly Working Anymore.” Not to mention a sparkling, beautifully written drinking song, “A Black Hearse Following Me,” from Bill Castle’s pen. It’s all good, none of it exactly the same. Second, the musicianship is first-rate, but never not once showy. Somebody (maybe even Chris Thile) said to me long ago that his music was not about creating contexts for solos, but too much bluegrass is now, and too many solos are twelve bars when four would do. Ramblers Choice offer the virtuosity of ensemble playing (and it’s truly a pity to read that the ensemble is no longer playing together). It’s not the best record I’ve ever heard. It may be the best bluegrass album I’ve heard this year, but it may also be the only new bluegrass I’ve played all the way through. But it’s really good, and that’s really enough. It’s a reminder of what glorious music bluegrass can be. Junior Sisk isn’t the future. His voice is warm (and sometimes even reminds me of Skaggs in the ‘80s), but not spectacular, and never feral. But he’s the present, and it’s well wrapped. The future? I dunno. Maybe y’all will have a go at that in the comments. Maybe not.