One of 2010's most interesting and well-performed bluegrass albums was the Rebel debut of Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers. "Rambler's Call" passed me by, and it was only in the last month that I purchased it via download in anticipation of writing this review. That album featured a range of bluegrass sounds, some up-tempo tunes such as Boston Jail and Don Reno's Charlotte Breakdown as well as more sedate pieces including a rendering of the timeless but fairly recent Marty Stuart and Connie Smith song Farmer's Blues and The Old Rocking Chair. Above all else, the gospel numbers ring truest, and Rambler's Call had a trio of stellar songs of faith including Don't You Want to Go Home and the peppy No Longer an Orphan.
So it should come as no surprise to learn that Joe Mullins' next project is a bluegrass gospel album, and equally predictable are the strength and breadth of the songs collected in this new album from Rebel Records.
A bit of background. Joe Mullins has been around the bluegrass world since he was a child, and he was a member of The Traditional Grass with his father Paul 'Moon' Mullins who was also a member of The Boys from Indiana and the Clinch Mountain Boys. Joe was a member of the bluegrass supergroup Longview and is a respected 5-string player. Owner of a few Ohio radio stations, Mullins concentrated on broadcasting for much of the past twenty years and has only recently increased the time he is able to devote to bluegrass. With the establishment of The Radio Ramblers, he has formulated a dynamic bluegrass outfit.
"Hymns from the Hills" is a set of 14 bluegrass gospel songs, some of which are of the expected variety with most displaying inspiration within their composition. I'm sure I'm not alone in suggesting that if every song of faith included 5-string banjo leads and fills, the world would be an even better place.
Across this album The Radio Ramblers are joined by some of the most powerful voices in bluegrass gospel. Larry Sparks takes the lead on two exceptional tracks, the sprite Come On which Mullins rearranged to suit Sparks' style and That Little Old Country Church House which many may know from the "Preachin', Prayin' and Singin'" collection that includes the Masters Family's rendition. Doyle Lawson sings the lead on I'll Never Go Back, with Mullins singing the high tenor in a great duet. A children's choir introduces Jesus Loves Me with Ralph Stanley singing the verses of the Sunday School standard.
Rhonda Vincent and Paul Williams also appear, and their contributions only add to the value of "Hymns from the Hills". Williams, who sings lead on his own Hold On to the Old Gospel Way, has deep bluegrass gospel roots and lends additional substance to the project.
Despite all manner of friends dropping in, The Radio Ramblers take care of their own duties with the humility and expertise one expects in a bluegrass gospel album. Nothing is over-sung, the instrumentation is outstanding, and the mood created is one of collective acceptance. The a cappella, quartet treatment of Rock of Ages Keep My Soul led by Mike Terry (the Ramblers' mandolin player) is some stout and O The Love of My Redeemer- a new song that sounds classic- is given a more churchly treatment.
A new song from Tim Stafford and Jon Weisberger Be Jesus to Someone Today has a wonderful message and Adam McIntosh's lead singing on this one features excellent phrasing. McIntosh, perhaps familiar to some from his appearances with Dry Branch Fire Squad several years ago, handles several of the leads on this album including his own He Loves Me. Mullins maintains balance in his band by sharing the leads with McIntosh and Terry, while displaying his own significant abilities on songs such as Fallen Leaves and Fair Weather
At a very generous 47 minutes, "Hymns from the Hills" is well-worth the money. The CD packaging is worth the extra investment (as opposed to the download) as Mullens has provided extensive liner and song notes to accompany the album.