Junior Sisk is determined to be the anchor of tradition in bluegrass music. Spurning over production in his recordings, to sparse down to the instrument simplicity, his recordings are fresh as if the band were playing in your living room. His clean mountain voice rolls easily through a choice of songs you won’t get tired of. Junior is appearing at Sugar & Spice, Poughkeepsie, N.Y., sponsored by the Hudson Valley Bluegrass Association for the first time on September 4th.
D: What will the audience expect when Junior Sisk and Rambler’s Choice perform on Sept 4th?
J: We will mainly be workin’ on the songs off our last two projects on Rebel Records; The Blue Side Of The Blue Ridge, which won album of the year at SPBGMA (Ed. - Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America) and we’ll be working off a lot of new stuff from the Heartaches And Dreams.
D: Who wrote the songs on Heartaches And Dreams?
J: Tom T. Hall and Dixie Hall wrote “Train Without A Track,” it is on the charts at 28 and the album is 14, startin’ out, first month on the charts. And Larry McPeat wrote a song “Humble Man,” from the Peat Brothers. Daniel Sawyer down in East Tennessee sent us a good song, which is the third release, “Workin’ Hard Ain’t Hardly Workin’ Anymore.” John Green and Rick Pardue wrote “Don’t You Cry.”Rick Pardue used to play with Timmy our bass player. Then a great songwriter out of Kentucky, Bill Castle, he wrote numerous songs for III Tyme Out and other acts, he wrote “A Black Hearse Following Me.” And then the gospel tune I dedicated to my mom, “The Lowest Valley.” I first got that from the Marshall Family, first heard David Marshall do that. Pearlie Mullins is the writer of that. Then me and my dad wrote one, “Heartaches And Dreams,” the title track. And Matt Jones, which is Joe Mullins’ of Radio Ramblers, sister’s husband wrote “Bullets Always Win.” “You Broke Your Promise” is an old Lonesome Pine Fiddlers song. Curly Ray Cline and Paul Williams wrote that. And Timmy Massey and Rick Pardue wrote “Guns, Coins And Jewelry.” Actually our mandolin player plays a little fiddle too, he’s startin’ to do some twin fiddles. We try to work twin fiddles in on that song now. And “The Laughs On Me,” I heard that from Timmy Cline, originally from down around southwest Virginia, Clyde Pitts wrote that one. “Let The Light Shine Down”, well you know, Bill Monroe cut that and also The Country Gentleman, that hadn’t been done for a while so we thought we’d through that one in there.
D: Heartaches And Dreams is a great album. It’s an album that changes your feeling and mood with each cut. There is nothing exactly the same through out all the songs. It’s a great choice of songs for that album.
J: Thank you. That’s what we tried to do on each of our projects. We put a lot of work into it and a lot of thought.
D: There are really top class musicians as well on the album.
J: We are really blessed by that, they’re really good guys too. Actually a couple of the guys have since left; the banjo and the fiddle player. The new banjo player is Jason Davis, he was with Grasstown and Blue Ridge the last half of the year. He decided to join up with us. He’s workin’ out really good. Greg Moore is playin’ fiddle right now. He comes from The Wildwood Valley Boys, Melvin Goins, and most recently with James King for a couple of years.
D: What are your future plans? When do you rehearse?
J: This fall we’ll go back in and start workin’ on the new songs for the new record. That’s when we rehearse most in the studio. By the time we get out of the studio we about done forgot all the songs by the time the album comes out. Then we get together at shows and in between sets we’ll get back in a room or on the bus and just rehearse when we can on the road.
D: All your songs cover themes like family, for example “Poor Mountain,” written by Ronnie Bowman and Tim Massey.
J: That’s a mountain just over here on the other side of Roanoke. Always make a joke about it. If things don’t get a little better it’s a place I might have to move before too long. I tell everybody I got me a mailbox set up already. I’m just waitin’.
D: And talkin’ about moonshine…
J: That’s right. I live in Franklin County the moonshine capital of the world. I had a drink of moonshine believe it or not. I’m still alive.
D: That proves it; there’s nothing wrong with moonshine.
J: There you go. Take it from me.
D: The songs on Heartaches And Dreams have gospel issues as well like “Dust On The Bible” and “Lowest Valley.”
J: Gospel music has always been a big part of it. That’s my favorite music to play ‘cause I put more feeling into it. It’s about somethin’, somethin’ great. I really like my gospel music the best of all.
D: “Lowest Valleys” has some nice harmonies.
J: Yep. We worked on that. We do it in four parts. Timmy sings the bass line. We put him on another mic where he shows up there pretty strong. So people can hear him really good.
D: Four part harmony is difficult to do isn’t it?
J: It is. We’re mainly a trio but on some of the gospel stuff…we’ll probably do a gospel record. Not next but the one after the next CD. We’re gonna work on some a cappella stuff.
D: A lot of the songs have a country feel. Not current country but a more classic country sound.
J: In my opinion today, bluegrass is old country. Country today is…I don’t know what? That’s pretty much the way I think of it. Bluegrass songs today might be old country. That’s my favorite stuff anyway. Ernest Tubb stuff and way back there. And I think bluegrass songs today are…the real hardcore bluegrass comes from the old country.
D: “Humble Man” is a good example and even “Black Hearse Following Me.”
J: Yeah. “Black Hearse…” has a western flair to it. The way they do the fiddle work on it. Somethin’ we’ve never done before. We were kind of leery about doin’ it but everybody seems to like it.
D: I think that’s really a great tune.
J: It is and it shows another part of us too. It gets to everyone. We put everything out there. Most definitely put everything I can into every show. ‘Cause I get into it and feel the songs and I don’t hold nothin’ back. There’s nothin’ polished about us. We just throw it in there and it comes out like it does.
D: You guys sound pretty polished to me.
J: Well I appreciate that. Some of these bands do way too much and overdo a song and even over record it. Too much production in there. We try to keep it raw and we are raw, so it works for us really good.
D: It’s like you’re just a band around the corner playin’ on a weekend afternoon.
J: That’s exactly right. It’s what I want.
D: When your band plays live do you vary your set list?
J: We play songs off our other CDs. “He Died A Rounder At 21” is one of my most requested songs. We mix it all up but right now we’re pushin’ the new record and songs from Blue Side Of The Blue Ridge. Out of two 45 minute sets you’ll get Heartaches and Dreams, Blue Side Of The Blue Ridge and other songs thrown in there.
D: Do you do requests?
J: Absolutely if we know it. I always ask at the end of the show, “Do you have any requests?” As long as it's not “Rocky Top” or….
D: And Tim Massey is your cousin?
J: Yes. I always make a joke on stage. We’ve been singin’ together since we were teenagers about 10 or 15 years ago (laughter). Which is a big lie. It was 25 years ago we were teenagers. We started out singin’ from the Keith Whitley/Ricky Skaggs project, 2nd Generation album, we learned all that. I was raised on The Stanley Brothers. Pretty much all the Stanley stuff I know and I still love to do it today when we get in jam sessions. When people ask me to do a song, nine times out of ten, it’s going to be a Stanley Brothers song. Carter Stanley I love his writin’.
D: When you think of bluegrass today do you think it’s going to follow that Nashville over production route?
J: It is kinda. To get to more folks (listening) I guess it has to do that. But your diehard bluegrass fans…that’s why we did not go in that direction, we’ve stayed traditional. And traditional is all I can do anyway. I went with Blue Ridge and they were more contemporary. When I joined them I said I’m not changin’ for you guys, y’all pretty much gonna have to change for me. ‘Cause I can’t do that style. And we did and made pretty good records and it went over well. I think there’s a place out there for hardcore, traditional music like the Johnson Mountain Boys. When they came on the scene they were “it” for a while, because no one else was doin’ it. There’s still traditional bands. James King is keeping it traditional. Most of the others are going above and beyond the realm of bluegrass. I don’t care if there are 10 progressive bands there. They need at least one traditional band there to hold the ground. And a lot of times it’s me and I like that part of it, 'cause it gives me more work. I’m there to fill the traditional shoes.
D: Lookin’ forward to your performance up here
J: I am too. Tell everybody I said, “Hi!”