Junior Sisk

Junior-Sisk-leadJunior Sisk
Tossing Another Log On The Fire,
Keeping The Traditional Bluegrass Flames Burning
By Derek Halsey

Climbing to the top tiers of the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Awards can be a tough nut to crack in these modern days. The notion of “same old names” syndrome is always raised at certain times of the year as artists on the verge try to work their way through the nomination game. But, it can happen, and Junior Sisk is a perfect example.

In 2013, the traditional bluegrass veteran made his way to the podium when he won the IBMA Male Vocalist Of The Year award. The year before, he broke new personal ground when he won both the IBMA Album Of The Year and Song Of The Year honors for A Far Cry From Lester And Earl and “Heart Of A Song” respectively. What an artist does with that notoriety in the months and years that follow can be what proves the mettle of a performer. Sisk has taken full advantage of those awards and the notoriety that comes with them by producing an impressive array of albums over the last five years.

It’s a special and fun thing when you spin a brand new recording and the first two or three songs out of the gate prove to be exciting and topnotch. That’s the case with Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice’s new project called The Mountains Are Calling Me Home. The first cut on the recording is “What Goes Around,” a rollicking cut that falls within the best customs of the traditional bluegrass music template. The song makes you want to turn it up after the opening notes. That’s followed by the even more upbeat love song “What A Way To Go,” written by Jim Munday. The lyrics begin: Romeo and Juliet, Jack and Jill / Romeo took poison, Jack fell down the hill / But I got you, and how it’s going to turn out, I don’t know / If loving you is killing me, Oh, what a way to go.

Other cuts on the album were written by Trey Ward, J.R. Satterwhite, Jr., Wayne Winkle, Billy Cox, and G. Steve Watts. The rest of the songs are penned by more well-known artists such as Ronnie Bowman, Daniel Salyer, and a lone cover by Jimmy Martin, “You’ll Be A Lost Ball (In The High Weeds).” Ultimately, finding unique and new songs is what makes Sisk an important bluegrass artist. He has become, like other top acts in the field, a modern day songcatcher who finds gems that might otherwise get “lost in the weeds.”

“We have been really blessed by the material coming from songwriters,” says Sisk, from his home in southwestern Virginia. “I tell all of the young groups coming up today, when they ask me if I have any advice, I always tell them, ‘Select your material and don’t try to sound like anybody else. Even if the song does sound a certain way, make it your own. That is the only way you are going to make it in this business.’ So, we have been really blessed by great songwriters and great material to choose from.”

Sisk tries to collect original songs with potential throughout the year. “People will send me demos, and I will probably get six to eight CDs a month. I’ve had pretty good success with a lot of those songs. What you come to find out is that you don’t just sit them over in a corner and pick them up whenever you need them. When you get them, you better stick them in the CD player and listen to them because I’m not the only one they’re sending them to. I’ve lost a lot of songs by just setting them to the side. I’ll play them one day and say, ‘Man, that’s a great song. I’ll give them a call.’ Then, they’ll say, ‘Somebody just called me about it last week and they have out a hold on that song.’ I’ve lost many a tune that way. So, when I get one in the mail, the first thing I do is either jump in the car and listen to it or play it in my office on my computer. You never know—it might be the number one song that you’re looking for, right there. For instance, as soon as I heard ‘The Mountains Are Calling Me Home,’ I knew I had to record it.”

Once Sisk hears a fresh song that he likes, he then tries to get other opinions on the possible cut. “When I first hear a song, I can pretty much tell whether it will fit us or not. I’ve been doing this business long enough to know,” he says. “But, at the same time, I’ll bring it to the guys in the band and let them hear it because if one person in the group doesn’t like the song, I don’t want to record it. I want everybody to like it because we’re going to be singing it for a long time. I know we can wear a song out because we still go to places where they want to hear ‘A Far Cry From Lester And Earl’ and some of our other hits. But, we got tired of it and most of the time, we don’t do it much anymore. But, if somebody hollers it out, we’re here for the fans and want to take care of them and do requests. We wouldn’t be anywhere without the fans.”

Sisk’s main influence, as far as to how to craft the beginning of an album, comes from the Johnson Mountain Boys, the acclaimed band that called it quits in the mid-1990s. “I always think about the Johnson Mountain Boys and the projects and albums that they put out. That was also true with their shows when they performed live. I’ve never seen a band more excited and have more energy than the Johnson Mountain Boys. We try to do the same thing now onstage. We don’t do a whole lot of talking because I don’t like to talk that much, and won’t let anybody else talk but me. We just roll along with the show. People want to hear you perform and don’t want to hear speeches or anything like that. I like to look out in the crowd and see them crying on one song and laughing on the next one and tapping their feet.”

Sisk got to see the Johnson Mountain Boys in person when he moved to the Washington, D.C., region as a teenager. “I didn’t finish high school. I left about the middle of the tenth grade and moved to the D.C. area, so I was there when the Johnson Mountain Boys put out their very first album,” he recalls. “I saw them at a festival over in Maryland. My dad and my cousins and I had a little local band and we all went over to Maryland to the show one day and when they announced ‘The Johnson Mountain Boys,’ they would run out onstage. Eddie Stubbs would go out and set up all of the microphones before they started, so when they would introduce them, the band could run out there and kick it off. It was always an instrumental they would begin with, and then they would go right into another song. The way they dressed and their excitement and energy just tore me all to pieces. I followed them everywhere they went in that area.”

The Johnson Mountain Boys would also be involved in another landmark in the early career of Sisk. “The first album that I was ever mentioned on was their Requests album. If you’ll look on the cover, it says, “Cry, Cry, Darling” requested by Junior Sisk. So, I can say that was the first record I was ever on,” he laughs. “They sent me a copy of it. I call it ‘The White Album.’ I’ve never opened it. It’s still in the cellophane. They slit the cover a little bit and all of them signed it and sent it to me. I’ve never played it, ever. That’s my treasure right there. I got to sing with Dudley Connell a couple of times at a few different places. He’s my hero.”

No longer in school, Sisk went to work right away while living outside of D.C. “There was a bluegrass venue there called Partners II, a restaurant in Centreville, Virginia. They used to have open mic nights on Thursday, and I was picking over there and ended up playing with the house band for about two years. I started out on upright bass. I would play there on Thursday nights with Bill Harrell. When Boom Boom Ferris couldn’t make it, I would fill in for him. I also played with the house band on Saturday nights. We would open up for whoever was coming through town, whether it was the Country Gentlemen or the Lost & Found. That’s how I got to meet everybody. We went up to D.C. in the early 1980s, and we probably moved back around 1985.”

Back in the mountains of southwestern Virginia and more established as a known picker, Sisk began to work with other bluegrass artists in the region. “When I got back home, the Lonesome River Band was around here in town with Dan Tyminski and Ronnie Bowman and all of those guys. They ended up recording two or three of my songs on one of their albums. That’s how I got introduced to them. And, I was only about seven miles from the Bluegrass Cardinals, who also lived right here in Ferrum, Va. I got to hang with Don and David Parmley and Dale Perry and those guys, and I was 15 miles or so from the Lost & Found band. Herschel Sizemore ended up playing in my group for a couple of years when I first started Ramblers Choice. I picked with him for a while and he taught me a whole lot. But, it was a hot spot for bluegrass at one time. They’ve all gone on to Nashville and are doing bigger things. I guess me and Allen Mills are still holding the fort down here in Ferrum.”

Jimmy Martin’s “You’ll Be A Lost Ball (In The High Weeds)” is a cut chosen by Sisk because it puts a smile on people’s faces. “We’ve known that song for a long time and been thinking about it for a long time, so we decided to go ahead and try our version of it. It’s always been one of my favorites and it also pays tribute to Jimmy, also one of my heroes.”

Sisk has always been known to hold the line on traditional bluegrass music, but he did spend quite a bit of time playing with Wyatt Rice & Santa Cruz, a band known for dabbling on the more progressive side of the genre at times. “That was about as far out there as I could go,” he laughs. “But also, keep in mind that I played second guitar, so I got to watch Wyatt Rice stand onstage and do his magic every night. I didn’t hit the right chords every night, but he sure did! He broadened my horizons a whole lot. We also kept it traditional. We would throw traditional songs in there, and then we would go a little bit more contemporary. But, we kept it in the middle of the road. Wyatt’s brother Tony played several shows with us and, man that was a big thrill. The first time I played with Tony was on Sammy Shelor’s first solo album. I went into the studio and they wanted me to sing a song straight across from Tony Rice. You talk about scared to death! I had always idolized Tony and the next thing you know, there I am singing with him right across from me and I can’t hardly sing for watching him. He just said, ‘You got it, Sisk.’ It was so cool.”

When Junior considered joining the band Blue Ridge, the same issues of style came up. “When I first went to work with Blue Ridge, they were a little bit more contemporary than what I was used to. Before they hired me and gave me the job, I said, ‘I’ll take the job and I’ll play for you under one condition. If I don’t have to change a whole lot for you guys, you’re going to have to give a little bit for me.’ They said, ‘We want to play ’grass again.’ We played traditional bluegrass and still kept the Blue Ridge sound and it seemed to work really well. That was a good time. I was with them for about five years and we recorded three projects together. I think it was one of the best bands I have ever been in. We were really tight towards the end when we decided to break up and part ways. One of my favorite records is the last gospel album we did with Blue Ridge called Gettin’ Ready. That was just a great project and, about the time it came out, we broke up.”

Sisk chose to make The Mountains Are Calling Me Home the title cut of his latest album not because it sounded cool, but because it best describes his life in southwestern Virginia. He is one bluegrass artist that really does live the mountain life. “When I first heard that song, it fit me to a T. I’m about as mountain as it comes. I live in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and I hunt and I fish, and everybody knows me around here. If they don’t see me wearing camouflage, they probably won’t recognize me because if they catch me out in blue jeans or dressed up they’ll say, ‘Where are you going this week?’ They know I’m headed out if I’m not wearing my normal attire, which is camouflage most of the time. The guys in the group know that I only play nine months out of the year, so I can deer hunt three months out of the year. When it comes to the middle of October, they know they won’t see me again until after January. That’s when we start recording, and they get plenty of deer meat then. They all like it, and several of them hunt as well.”

Sisk has a fine mix of veterans and younger pickers in his band. They include Johnathan Dillon, Jason Davis, Kameron Keller, and Jamie Harper. During the recording of The Mountains Are Calling Me Home album, Sisk was recovering from neck surgery and couldn’t strum the guitar effectively, so Aaron Ramsey was brought in to pick the six-string. Sisk has since recovered and is back to playing his favorite axe onstage.

Sisk, like everyone else, is heartbroken over the loss of the first and second generation bluegrass artists who have left this world over the last decade or so. “It’s a sad time,” he says. “We lost Ralph Stanley and James King over the last year. Traditional bluegrass took a hard blow. My dad had fifty-some albums by the Stanley Brothers and that’s what I was raised on. A couple of years ago, I played at the Bluegrass On the Plains Festival down in Alabama, and I got to introduce Ralph. They did a big celebration with fireworks and all of that stuff as they brought him down through the middle of the crowd. I got to sing with him for the first time ever that evening. We did ‘Love Me Darling, Just Tonight,’ and Brandon Rickman (guitar player and singer for the Lonesome River Band) sang the tenor part as Ralph sat on a stool right behind us. When we came to the second time around for the chorus, Ralph put his hand on Brandon and raised himself up, and he sang the tenor part on the second chorus. I will never forget that. That just made my life full right then and there.”

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