Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers

Joe-Mullins-LeadJoe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers
By Tom Netherland

In Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken, a person walked a path as if through life. A fork in the road appeared. Perplexed, the person deliberated as to which direction to take. Joe Mullins stood at just such a forked road at the age of 17. High school behind him, the future before him, and a decision in the moment appeared while upon his way through life. Which road to take—down one route to college or down another to pursue music. We know now, he chose the latter.

“I had a scholarship to go to Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky,” said Mullins. “I had a roommate. I had a schedule. I had a syllabus. I had a Saturday radio show on their college radio station. And I didn’t go. Instead, I went on the air full-time at WPFB in Middletown, Ohio. I helped start Traditional Grass three or four months later at the age of 18.”

Decades later, progressively traditional Mullins and the Radio Ramblers’ sixth and latest album The Story We Tell earmarks an outfit seasoned within the finer virtues of traditional bluegrass. “Unapologetically, traditional is our content,” Mullins said. “You can be traditional and still be original. I’m grateful this is our sixth album in seven years on Rebel Records. I’d buy every one of them. There it is, in front of God and everybody.”

Mullins’ career trajectory points ever upward. Rue Farms Rustic Potato Chips now provide national sponsorship of Mullins and the Radio Ramblers. The Springfield, Ohio, company found an eager recipient and consumer. “Rue Farms make fine potato chips,” Joe said. “They taste good and they’re good for you. They’re all natural and non-GMO. You can find them in grocery stores and Big Lots across the country.”

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   Mullins chose a path in part paved by his father, Paul “Moon” Mullins. His father was a renowned figure on the radio airwaves in Ohio. He also played the fiddle, bluegrass style. With his career chosen, Joe laid a firm foundation for a life in bluegrass with Traditional Grass. First came several self-released albums on cassette. Then came a span from 1992 through 1995 when the band issued four albums on Dave Freeman’s Rebel Records.

“From the earliest time I can remember, I heard great bluegrass on the radio, saw great bluegrass on the stage,” he said. “I got a guitar and a record player for Christmas before I was 4 years old. I had a 45 of the Stanley Brothers with ‘Little Birdie’ on one side and ‘Whiskey’ on the other. My mother didn’t want me to listen to ‘Whiskey.’”

Exposure to bluegrass music’s first generation (including Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, and Jimmy Martin) shaped his ear. “Go back to the hardcore sounds of the Osborne Brothers and Jimmy Martin when they were surviving in the honky-tonks. It had so much raw power. Listen to the Stanley Brothers. I’ll play that music [on one of his three radio stations] right alongside Blue Highway or the Infamous Stringdusters. Doyle Lawson, Larry Sparks—that music is timeless.”

From his teeth-cutting days on the road with Traditional Grass through a tenure with Longview and now leading the Radio Ramblers, Mullins strives to create timeless music. He’s incorporated that approach since the band’s inception a decade ago. “When we recorded our first gospel album Hymns From The Hills, I told the guys that I want to make a bluegrass gospel album that people will be clinging to for years to come. Our new album The Story We Tell, while it doesn’t have any collaborations like Hymns From The Hills did with Rhonda Vincent (‘We Missed You In Church Last Sunday,’ as well as tunes with Larry Sparks, Ralph Stanley, Doyle Lawson, and Paul Williams), we feel the material will endure the test of time.”

Lessons learned early are paying  dividends now. Take the road, for example. Whether it was Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys piled into a car as they sped through long nights and along ragged roads from show to show or Traditional Grass and Mullins aboard their first bus, touring can amount to a grind. However, that doesn’t mean that personal appearances should reflect weariness. It’s important, he said, to show up looking good and sounding fresh. “We toured hard in the 1990s. You can play and sing when you’re tired,” he said. “Some of the best shows I’ve played were when I was running on fumes. Go with the flow and don’t let it stress you out. I’ve learned a lot of what not to do. I’ve matured a lot since back then.”

Rounding the corner into 2017, their fifth album, Sacred Memories, eased their group ever forward along the bluegrass highway of acclaim. A sixth, The Story We Tell, was released recently. “Bob and Sonny Osborne paved their own path. I’ve tried to do the same thing with the Radio Ramblers. I hope listeners can hear the authenticity. I don’t have a failed country career. I didn’t find bluegrass in college. I’ve got a lifetime vested in this.”

Mullins is 51 and raring to roar through decades to come. “We haven’t toured the West Coast,” he said. “We’ve done a couple of things in Arizona, Washington, Montana, Colorado. But we have never played one note in California. I’ve been there on tour—once with Traditional Grass and once with Longview. We’ve got such a demand in the heartland that we just haven’t been able to work it out—at least not yet.” The band performed overseas last year. They logged two days in the United Kingdom and three in Switzerland. They have a keen desire to return to Europe and to break new ground in Japan someday. “We’ve toured overseas. We’ve been included at the Grand Ole Opry, and I want to do more of that,” Mullins said. “I want a Grammy nomination someday. I would like to find someone who is not within traditional bluegrass to record a collaboration with. Maybe Old Crow Medicine Show, a progressive band or an Americana artist. I would love to collaborate with someone from another genre.”

He says of his band, “They lay the foundation in a big way. I love the guys in my band. Mike Terry has been with the band since day one. He doesn’t sound like anybody else. He has his own style on mandolin. He has his own tone on our new album. Duane Sparks, guitar and vocals, he’s a natural. He’s been with the group for five years now. Randy Barnes is a veteran. He knows what to play on bass without playing too much or too little. He brings a lot of depth to the band. Jason Barie is in his third year and second album with the band as our fiddler. He pushes me. He plays fearlessly and aggressively. I’ve got a great team.” It’s all about the music and relationships gathered and built therein. Mullins lives and breathes music, like most any musician worth a nickel.

Whether on the road or off, he owns three radio stations in three different counties in southwestern Ohio, all of which need managing. “WBZI is in Xenia, Ohio. That was my first station, which I bought 22 years ago. I also own WKFI in Wilmington, Ohio, and WEDI in Eaton, Ohio.”

There are, however, times when Mullins will come off the road, climb out of his 2000 MCI bus, and press pause. “That’s pretty accurate,” he said. “Every now and then, I get up and go fishing. We’re headed for the creek bank for the day. I don’t know if I’ll have the radio on. I sat on the front porch today doing an interview with my friend from Bristol. But music has been a part of my life since day one. I have been absorbed with it for half a century.”

The Story We Tell

   Their latest album The Story We Tell features a mix of newly-written bluegrass and deep-cut country songs plied with Mullins’ progressively traditional bluegrass manner. “They’re songs that’ll get ’em,” Mullins said. “I wanted something that was fun, that had a great diversity of material. We always go for a combination of new and old. The vocal variety and diversity is really cool. I hear authenticity in the music and vocal delivery. Vocals are key. This album proves our band can sing well, play well, and hang our hats on good songs.”

The uptempo and playful “If I’d Have Wrote That Song,” penned by Larry Cordle, Larry Shell, and James Silvers, features stout vocals intertwined with a carnival of accompaniment and spirited lyrics. “You can’t go wrong if you’ve got material from Larry Cordle, Ronnie Bowman, and Jerry Salley,” Mullins said. “As for song content, how many times have you heard one and thought, ‘Boy, I wish I had written that song?’ I wish I had written these songs.”

“I Could Have Gone Right” comes from the goldmine of Country Music Hall of Fame member Mel Tillis. Recall the rendition from Grand Ole Opry member Stonewall Jackson, which closed out his 1964 album on Columbia, Troubled Me. Likewise, Merle Haggard sandwiched the song in the middle of his classic “Mama Tried” LP on Capitol in 1968. “Dad had a 40-year career in broadcasting,” said Mullins. “He always dug around and wouldn’t necessarily play the latest single. Haggard did ‘I Could Have Gone Right,’ but it wasn’t a single for him. Dad played the song back in the ’70s and ’80s. It was perfect for this album. We kept a country flavor.”

Radio Rambler Mike Terry sings lead on “I Could Have Gone Right.” Duane Sparks sings tenor and Mullins maintains the high baritone part. The same assemblage tackled Jim Ed Brown’s “Would You Care” in an equally moving way. History shows that Country Music Hall of Fame members Jim Ed, Maxine, and Bonnie Brown, recorded “Would You Care” for RCA Victor in 1958. Then as now, the song soaks substance with the ease of a gravy-sopped biscuit. “I found Jim Ed Brown’s ‘Would You Care’ and fell in love with it immediately,” Mullins said. “I’m surprised that Doyle Lawson hasn’t recorded it already.”

There’s more gems on the album, too. Sparks fly from the get-go with the album’s opening tune, an incinerating “Long Gone Out West Blues.” Slide the disc in, turn it on, hear it turn loose. “We wanted to convey the energy that we have on stage,” Mullins said. “That song has plenty of life. There’s no chorus. I don’t know of anything on the radio right now that sounds like that. It was written by Pharis and Jason Romero of Canada. My son Daniel introduced me to their music. They’re old-time and folk musicians. I’ve had this one since 2015.” There’s nothing old or folkie about Mullins’ hot-wired treatment of the song.

An infectious nod of homage to and revival of the Delmore Brothers’ “The Last Old Shovel” strikes an approach that straddles yesterday with today. Sparks sings lead, Mullins sings tenor. Together, they’ve dusted and polished a blue ribbon example of duet harmony. “I love the Delmore Brothers,” Joe said. “A lot of people don’t know the songs of the Delmore Brothers. I love resurrecting old tunes. I enjoyed this one immensely.”

Freight trains rumble and midnight moons shine between the notes written and keys rung on this new album. Feel the dirt of country roads, smell the fragrance of Mom’s cherry pie, hear the preacher preach on a misty Sunday morning. One can feel the pull of good times and memories made throughout the 12 new recordings.

“It was not only finding the songs and feeling the songs, but how do you make the songs yours?” he said. “I had to learn that along the way. Surrounded by great musicians, I stripped these songs down and built them back up to make them fresh. We’ve learned how to put that frame around the picture to tell the story.”

There’s no question that Mullins at 51 owes a nod of gratitude to Mullins at 17. Just as in Robert Frost’s poem, a pair of roads presented themselves to the youngster long ago. With banjo in hand and songs in his heart, he took the less traveled way. And it’s made the difference. “Time will tell if my best years are ahead of me,” said Mullins. “This new album is a pretty good start on the next season of my life.”

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