Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice

It’s said that you can’t keep a good man down, and when it comes to Ramblers Choice, the number has to be doubled. Blue Side of the Blue Ridge, the band’s debut for Rebel Records, marked the return of not one but two outstanding bluegrass talents—and the music they have made is a testament to the power and energy of traditional mountain music performed by stellar musicians.

Of course, even when Junior Sisk seemed to disappear after the breakup of Blue Ridge, the band he’d sung for since almost the start of the new millennium, it seemed likely that his lowered profile was a temporary thing. In fact, it’s hard to imagine an artist more deeply devoted to bluegrass, or more deeply embedded in the prolific bluegrass community of southwest Virginia. First earning acclaim as a songwriter when the Lonesome River Band recorded two of his creations (including instant jam session favorite “The Game (I Can’t Win)”) on their popular Old Country Town (1994), Sisk went on to contribute to the award-winning Stanley Gospel Tradition project and to anchor the short-lived but widely admired Wyatt Rice & Santa Cruz before founding the original edition of Ramblers Choice in 1998. Though the group produced only one album before disbanding, it exercised a profound influence on the bluegrass scene as alumni like Jim Van Cleve, Alan Perdue and Elmer Burchett went on to serve with, among others, Mountain Heart, IIIrd Tyme Out, and Continental Divide.

Junior followed his work in Ramblers Choice with a stint as guitarist and singer with the acclaimed Lost & Found before joining BlueRidge in 2002. Working there with mandolin virtuoso Alan Bibey, he led the group through three well-received CDs—Come Go With Me (2002), Side By Side (2004) and the all-gospel Gettin’ Ready—along with an IBMA nomination for the latter and a share in the organization’s Album Of The Year award (for the multi-artist live release, Celebration Of Life) before its eventual dissolution at the end of 2006.

Like his cousin Junior, bass player and singer Tim Massey was a founding member of Ramblers Choice—and like Junior, he first won recognition as a songwriter, penning 1995’s IBMA Song Of The Year, “Cold Virginia Night” for the Lonesome River Band’s Ronnie Bowman. A favorite among knowledgeable bluegrass fans, he followed his stint in Ramblers Choice with work in a variety of Virginia and North Carolina-based groups while seeing his songs recorded by a long list of premier artists, including Dan Tyminski, the Lonesome River Band, IIIrd Tyme Out, Ernie Thacker and BlueRidge.

When Sisk and Massey decided to re-form Ramblers Choice, they quickly assembled a lineup that reflects both the traditional roots of the Blue Ridge Mountains’ bluegrass community and its contemporary sensibilities. Fiddler Billy Hawks had served with traditionalist stalwarts Big Country Bluegrass and an assortment of the region’s many groups while operating a recording studio in his home town of Dobson, North Carolina. Banjo player Darrell Wilkerson came to the group after stints with, among others, Carolina Drive and Honi Deaton & Dream, while mandolinist Chris Harris represented the youngest generation of the area’s musicians, training in—and winning—mandolin contests at venues like Merlefest and Galax.

This iteration of Ramblers Choice recreated the strengths of the original group, amplified by a decade of experience and engagement with the whole range of bluegrass music’s stylistic history. Together with producer Ronnie Bowman, whose own prowess has been fortified by a decade’s worth of achievements as a bandleader, songwriter and producer, they serve up music filled with well-chosen songs, masterful musicianship and compelling vocals. They produced six albums for Rebel Records (including Hall of Fame Bluegrass! with Joe Mullins).