Mountain Fever MFR

   At the end of 2017, rather than deal with personnel changes and reform his band, 2013 IBMA Male Vocalist Of The Year Junior Sisk decided to use this new album to refocus on the traditional music that first set his musical soul on fire. “With the loss of so many great, traditional bluegrass artists of late, like Ralph Stanley, James King, Dave Evans, and Melvin Goins,” Junior says, “I really want to make a strong effort to keep their sound alive.”

Sisk had a stash of good songs with enough moss on them, and he called on a powerful circle of friends to bring them to life. Guest vocalists include Del McCoury, Heather Berry Mabe, Marty and Tim Raybon, Allen Mills, and Junior’s most frequent duo partner, Daniel Salyer. Wailing fiddle arrives courtesy of Jason Carter. Justin Moses on banjo and Mark Fain on bass anchor the groove. Ashby Frank plays a sparkling, firecracker mandolin. Guitar/songwriter wizard Thomm Jutz adds guitar on three tracks. Junior’s trademark, authentic tenor range vocals and thundering rhythm guitar take the spotlight, claiming every one of these new songs as his own, except maybe “The Guilt Was Gone,” which he shares ownership with Del McCoury. (Any time the patriarch of bluegrass music’s first family sings a song, it becomes a Del McCoury song no matter who else is around the mic.) The songs are honest, hard-hitting, and easy to relate to. Sisk never got above his raising, but on this album he gets down and wallows in it with the enthusiasm of a young man hearing the Stanley Brothers or Jimmy Martin for the first time.

The album kicks off with the perfectly matched Sisk/Salyer duet. The guys discover a new depth of heartache which deserves a new shade of blue to even come close to describing it.  Sisk and Massey blend well on “Honey Do List.” The clever turn of a phrase and quick-paced three-quarter time make this song sound like an old Jimmy Martin song that someone just discovered. “Ain’t Nothing Wrong With That,” penned by Brink Brinkman and Dale Pyatt, warns: When music chases money / In the end you’ll find / It might fill your pockets / But won’t satisfy your mind. “The Guilt Was Gone,” written by the late, great Paul Craft and Shawn Camp is simply scalding, as rendered by Sisk and McCoury. “I Heard You Knocking” is one of two bluegrass gospel offerings, this one written by Junior’s dad, Harry C. Sisk. The duet with Heather Berry Mabe on “Backwards And Forwards,” written by Bob Amos, is simply beautiful—a tale of bad timing in a romance: We’ll never know what the future will hold if the story’s never told.

One of the high points of the collection is the humorous “By Now I Would Be Dead,” a Sisk/Allen Mills duet about a hard-working grandpa whose slow-to-rise in the morning grandson hasn’t inherited his work ethic on the farm: There’s cows to milk, a hog to feed, the chickens must be fed / If hard work’s gonna kill you, boy, by now I would be dead. “God Did Good” is a love song that gets a full bluegrass harmony treatment from Sisk and brothers Marty and Tim Raybon. The closing number, “The Traveling Kind” (written by Daniel Salyer), could have come straight out of the Jimmy Martin songbook. If you like solid picking, singers who can absolutely nail traditional bluegrass, and a fresh crop of songs that sound like they could have been written in the 1950s, you’ll enjoy Junior Sisk’s new/old direction and tribute to his musical roots. We like the black suit and tie and the new white cowboy hat, too, Junior! (Mountain Fever, 1177 Alum Ridge Rd. NW, Willis, VA 24380, www.mountainfever.com.)NC

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