When Junior Sisk announced he was retiring Ramblers Choice and taking his music in a more traditional direction, one wasn't sure what to make of the pronouncement. Sisk has been one of the most traditional of mainstream bluegrass band leaders, releasing a new album just about every year this last decade. How much more traditional could he get?
Admittedly, the last couple Ramblers Choice albums were unexceptional, perhaps indicating that an artistic malaise had established itself; both "Poor Boy's Pleasure" and "The Mountains Are Calling Me Home" contain fine performances and solid songs. However, a spark of commitment appeared to be lacking.
The Junior Sisk electricity is back. Recording with hired guns - Jason Carter (fiddle), Justin Moses (banjo), Ashby Frank (mandolin) and Mark Fain (bass) - Sisk sounds completely comfortable singing with this capable group. Daniel Salyer handles most of the tenor vocals. There is no shortage of wonderful sounds captured within these dozen songs. Carter's fiddling on "I Heard You Knocking" and "She's Just a Memory" is especially charged, with the title track giving Frank an opportunity to show off his rhythmic chop.
"The Whiskey and The Guitar" brings favored vices together in a well-voiced battle of wills, with "Henry Clayton Parker" (featuring a terrific banjo kick-off from Moses) and "Ain't Nothing Wrong With That" also demonstrating Sisk's continued vocal strength and individuality. Del McCoury joins Sisk on "The Guilt Was Gone," a song recalled from Shawn Camp's "Live at the Station Inn" album some years ago; the band gets a Del-groove going on this one, and when the legend joins Sisk on the chorus, the effect is magical.
Allen Mills, one of bluegrass music's finest singers, joins Sisk on the homely "By Now I Would Be Dead." Marty Raybon duets with Sisk on "God Did Good"with Tim Raybon providing the album's only three-piece harmony. Daughter of Bluegrass Heather Berry Mabe makes a rare appearance, singing beautifully with Sisk on "Backwards and Forwards."
While Junior Sisk never strayed from the bluegrass fold, he has certainly revitalized himself with "Brand New Shade of Blue." It is a most satisfying album providing evidence that artists can advance the music by shoring its foundation.