Award Winning Bluegrass Talent Junior Sisk Plays TONIGHT in Missoula

By MARK VOSBURGH

You may not have heard of Junior Sisk, but you likely know his bluegrass peers.

Ever hear of Allison Krauss, Del McCoury or Ralph Stanley?  How about the soundtrack to Oh Brother Where Art Thou? or the song Man of Constant Sorrow?

Junior Sisk has recently won a trifecta of International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) awards that place him and his music in the top tier of bluegrass music’s biggest stars and greatest hits.

In 2012, Sisk won IBMA’s song and album of the year awards with A Far Cry from Lester and Earl and The Heart of a Song.  In 2013 he received the bluegrass music industry’s coveted male vocalist of the year honors.

Tonight (May 19, 2014), Missoulians will have a chance to hear what all the accolades are about, when Junior and his band Junior Sisk and Rambler’s Choice comes to the Ruby Jewel Jamboree.

JuniorSisk4-13-2013aLR-32by2In a phone interview, I asked Sisk if the magnitude of his IBMA wins has sunk in.  “Well, it’s still really surprising to be acknowledged like that … it just really blew me away.”  he replied.  “I guess people really like what I’m doin’ and I finally figured out that they do like good traditional bluegrassmusic.”

Asked if things have changed for him since winning the male vocalist award he said, “Oh yeah, back when I booked myself, I had to stay on the phone and the Internet all day and try to book shows and everything.   Now they are calling my booking agent so that helps a lot.” He continued, ” It puts a little more pressure on me as far as being lead vocalist to shine a little brighter and to live up to that award.   That is kind of scary for me cause all I’ve ever done and all I’ve every wanted to do is pick and sing.”

Raised and still living in the old time music hotbed of southwest Virginia, Junior has staked a claim as a guardian of the bluegrass tradition. ” I was pretty much raised up on the Stanley brothers music and Carter Stanley.”   He said, “I’ve followed him and the hard-core [bluegrass] traditionalists, the ones that speak to you through their heart and their voice.”

Commenting on his reputation as an authentic bluegrass singer Sisk said, “That’s what I try to do. Every show I play I put my heart and soul into it”   He noted, ” I’m pretty much drained after the shows.”

Sisk’s award winning song, Far Cry from Lester and Earl  laments music’s drift from it’s roots, especially from the first generation bluegrass of the Stanley Brothers, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.  In the song’s the chorus Sisk sings:

new-band-300x200We’ve got too far away from Carter and Ralph
and the love of a sweet mountain girl.
We’re way down below that high lonesome sound
and a far cry from Lester and Earl.

Junior wrote part of that song while sitting in a tree stand hunting deer near his home in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains.  An avid deer hunter, Sisk said, ” I love to hunt and fish nine months out the year, so when deer season comes around the boys [in the band] pretty much know it’s my time.”   Asked if he ever thinks about coming to Montana to hunt elk he said, “I think about it all the time!  I’d love to get one of those, that would take care of me for sure for a winter.”   The Missoula show will be his first time performing in the state.

Sisk’s home of Franklin County, Virginia is known by historians as the moonshine capital of the country.  “That’s right.” Sisk said.  “They’ve cut down on it [moonshine] a whole lot now, made examples of people, but there’s still a few hills and hollers you can go into to get a drink if you have one for medicinal purpose only.” he joked.

At his son’s induction into the Virginia Music Hall of Fame, songwriter and musician Henry Sisk Sr. told Bluegrass Today the story of how Junior got into music.   “When he was 13 or 14, he had been wanting a motorcycle for Christmas,” the elder Sisk said. “But I got him an upright bass. He was disappointed at first, but he started playing and forgot about the motorcycle.”

After playing in bands with his father and cousin, Sisk moved to the DC area.  He played bluegrass every Saturday at Partners II bar in Centreville, Virginia.  Commenting on the experience Sisk said,  “That’s where I got to meet the big boys like Del McCoury, the Johnson Mountain Boys, the Bluegrass Cardinals and everybody that come in there”  Sisk continued, “I opened up for ’em because I played in the house band and that’s pretty much what got me hooked [on bluegrass].”

At the May show, Missoulians can expect to hear one of the most powerful, hard-driving and authentic voices in bluegrass.  Long-time bluegrass radio broadcaster Joe Mullans’ reaction to Junior’s singing is a typical one.  Mullans said in a Bluegrass Today interview, “Junior’s voice absolutely knocked me out when I first heard it.”

Junior’s voice rings with authenticity.    When he sings about hard times with his mama and papa in the hills of Virgina, he makes his audience believe that he has lived them.   At each of his shows, Sisk sings the gospel standard Lowest Valley.  When he sings the lines,

Give me the strength to do Thy perfect will,
Cause when I’m in the lowest valley I can climb the highest hill.

his sincerity and belief in the words comes through loud and clear.

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Photo courtesy ofJuniorSisk.us

Describing a typical Junior Sisk and Rambler’s Choice performance Sisk says, “The awards and everything are great to have and all, but just to see the pleasure in the people that we play for is my biggest thrill. ”  He continued,   “I don’t usually talk much in a show, I’d rather pick and sing, that’s just the way we work.  We try to get all the energy goin’ we keep the show movin’ along.”

He said laughingly about the Missoula show, “You’re gonna get all the music you can handle, I hope.”

True to the roots of the music, Sisk’s band is composed of top-notch musicians.   Sisk’s stand-out  24 year old banjo picker Jason Davis has a solo project that has been nominated for IBMA’s best instrumental album.   The band’s newest member 18 year young mandolin picker, Jonathon Dillon, adds a multi-generational feel to the band.

Describing the all important bluegrass harmony vocals of his band Sisk says, “I look for a good trio blend, a good tenor singer and a good baritone singer that blends very well.”   He continued, “We’ve got our fiddle player [Billy Hawks] that sings a little bass and we’ve got a new a cappella song that we got for him to show off a little, but it’s mostly duets and trios.

Returning to the theme of bluegrass tradition, Junior stated, “That’s pretty much like the Stanley brothers done it throughout the years …. if you can get you a good trio down you can cover about all the bases.”

Tenor vocals and doghouse bass are covered by the entertaining crowd favorite Jason “Sweet Tater” Tomlin.   Tomlin is affectionately referred to by Junior as “The Bobble Head”, a nickname Rambler’s Choice audiences fully understand.

Junior Sisk and Rambler’s Choice play in Missoula Monday, May 19th for second show of the 2014 concert series of Ruby Jewel Jamboree.  The Jamboree brings national and international acclaimed bluegrass acts to Montana.

The Ruby Jewel Jamboree concert series continues on July 7 with Bradford Lee Folk and the Bluegrass Playboys, and August 5 with Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen.  For tickets and more information visit the Ruby Jewel Jamboree website.

Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice 

  May 19th at 7 pm (opening act Kevin Pace & Early Edition), Ruby’s Inn , 4825 N. Reserve, 406-721-0990  rubyjeweljamboree.com

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Mark Vosburgh is a fourth-generation Montanan from Boulder and a 26-year resident of Missoula. He’s worked as a chemical engineer, backcountry ski guide, and wildfire scientist. He plays in several local bluegrass bands and enjoys the usual assortment of Missoula’s great outdoor opportunities.