Album Of The Week

April 21, 2020
 

In Praise of the Torch Holder

Junior Sisk: ‘I think I’m a torch holder and that’s what I hope to be until the end of my career.’

 

By David McGee

 

LOAD THE WAGON

Junior Sisk

Mountain Fever

 

There came a time a few years ago when Junior Sisk and his formidable band Ramblers Choice had worked their way into the upper tier of the traditional bluegrass world, riding high on acclaimed albums such as 2011’s The Heart of a Song and back-to-back home runs in 2016 and 2017 with Poor Boy’s Pleasure and The Mountains Are Calling Me Home, respectively. In particular, the latter remains one of the most evocative and moving traditional bluegrass long players of recent years.

Then, like that, a couple of Ramblers Choice stalwarts, notably Kameron Keller and Jason Davis, headed for new challenges, at about the same time Junior began rethinking his whole raison d’etre. “I was actually straying away from my heart–I was straying away from traditional bluegrass music a little bit,” Junior said in a revealing interview with Craig Shelburne in The Bluegrass Situation. “I just did not want to do that. I finally came to the conclusion that what I’m going to do until the end of my career is pay tribute to traditional bluegrass music, and try to keep it alive as long as I can. That’s what we’re trying to do today, is keep it straight-ahead bluegrass, right in the middle of the road, and turn the younger fans onto traditional bluegrass music.”

‘Get In Line Buddy,” Junior Sisk, from Load the Wagon

‘Hooked on Bluegrass,’ Junior Sisk, from Load the Wagon

Come 2018, Junior emerged anew as a solo artist with a powerhouse outing, Brand New Shade of Blue, with backing and guest vocals provided by the likes of Thomm Jutz, Marty and Tim Raybon, Del McCoury, Jason Carter, Justin Moses, et al. Even in this all-star constellation, if you will, Junior’s expressive tenor and solid rhythm guitar stood out. It was like nothing much had changed beyond the artist’s pronounced commitment to the traditional sound he has vowed to nurture and protect for future generations. So it is that his new solo project, Load the Wagon, picks up where Shade of Blue left off, with the notable exception of a tight new band congealing behind Junior’s emotional singing and picking, some of them being Shade of Blue returnees. The lineup now includes Tony Mabe on banjo; Heather Berry Mabe (a standout on Brand New Shade of Blue) on second guitar; Ramblers Choice veteran Jonathan Dillon on mandolin; Gary Creed on bass; and Doug Bartlett on fiddle. Assaying songs from several generations of roots music giants (all the way back to A.P. Carter), Junior and company make them all sound brand new.

For such a dedicated bluegrasser, Junior’s song selections here might make you wonder if he isn’t letting us in on an inner conflict he has about the business of being a bluegrasser. The album’s opening number, “Get In Line, Buddy,” breaks fast out of the gate behind Dillon’s mandolin chops and Doug Bartlett’s fiddle, ahead of Tony Mabe’s sprightly banjo soloing, as Junior relates the patience it takes to even get a foot in the door—“get in line, buddy/you just got here yesterday,” goes the wisdom imparted by a veteran picker in a song familiar to Country Gentlemen fans. It’s a sentiment Junior takes seriously, as he explained in the aforementioned interview, to wit: “I’m in line with Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, and all that. I’m way down the line, but I’m in line anyway. And it still rings true today when you come to Nashville. When you walk the streets, you see them on the streets. You see them in all the clubs and everything. Everyone’s standing in line. I feel like I’m still standing in line for traditional bluegrass music.” Small wonder, then, to find the determination and patience counseled in “Get In Line, Buddy” morphing into outright jubilation at the very thought of playing this music, as expressed in the third cut, “Hooked on Bluegrass,” a fiddle- and banjo-fired celebratory romp basking in the joy of its title sentiment. “I know that I’m addicted/but it’s the path I choose,” Junior sings, “I’m hooked on bluegrass music/it’s the only drug I use.”

‘Best Female Actress,’ Junior Sisk, from Load the Wagon

This yin-yang formulation is repeated elsewhere. In Charley Moore’s “Best Female Actress,” a sarcastic evisceration of a faithless woman (“you broke down outside a tavern/I guess that’s why I smell the beer”) is made doubly potent by Junior’s wry delivery complemented by Dillon’s evocative mandolin solo, its teary-eyed tenderness seemingly mocking the unappealing titular subject. Conversely, the Carter Family’s “Lover’s Farewell,” updated in sprightly fashion with Tony Mabe’s banjo setting the pace, is a poignant kissoff to an unfaithful paramour sent packing as detailed in piercing fashion in Heather Berry Mabe’s aching, Rhonda Vincent-like lead vocal.

‘I’m Lonesome and Blue,’ Junior Sisk, from Load the Wagon

Putting the blue in bluegrass, Junior’s keening, aching vocal enhances the abiding ache of lost love he conveys in the bluesy “I’m Lonesome and Blue,” with an instrumental assist from Bartlett’s long, weeping fiddle lines and Mabe’s desolate banjo sound. At the other end of the spectrum, only a spare, gently fingerpicked acoustic guitar is needed to support Junior’s deeply felt lead vocal on “I’m Going There,” a song of salvation with Heather Mabe leading the affecting quartet choruses. Going back into his catalogue, Junior revives one of his most popular concert numbers, “He Died a Rounder at 21,” the tragic tale of a young man who “drank whiskey for his liver/he smoked cigarettes for his lungs/he loved the women for his ego/he died a rounder at 21.” Dating to Sisk’s mid-‘90s tenure with Wyatt Rice & Santa Cruz, this simple but hard hitting tale of a wastrel who would not be salvaged is related in stark fashion—only Junior’s nasally, reportorial tenor and a quiet acoustic guitar occupy the track, all the better to underscore the depth of sorrow the lyrics convey in their cold, hard truth.

‘I’m Going There,’ Junior Sisk, from Load the Wagon

A.P. Carter’s ‘Lover’s Farewell,’ Junior Sisk, from Load the Wagon

“To thine own self be true,” Polonius advised in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, written in the late 16th or early 17th century. Here, near the end of the second decade of the 21st century, Junior Sisk is taking Polonius seriously, fiercely so. It’s something to see, and to hear. When asked by Craig Shelburne why he places such importance on carryig the traditional bluegrass torch, Junior responded with honesty and heart: “I’m just tickled to death to see the young’uns out here today that come to our shows, or to see them out jamming at festivals and playing the old-style music. You don’t see that a lot anymore. It seems that the younger generations is trying to play every note they know. …When I hear somebody with real emotion, and real feeling, who’s a traditional young’un coming up, I love it. Because we’ve lost so many — Ralph Stanley, James King, and a lot of traditional artists here lately. I think I’m a torch holder and that’s what I hope to be until the end of my career. As long as I’m able to breathe and sing, I’m going to keep their music alive.”

And so it is.