Over the past few years, Junior Sisk has spent some time revamping his band and doubling down on the straightforward traditional sound his fans love. 2018’s Brand New Shade of Blue showed fans that even though Ramblers Choice was no more, Junior wasn’t going anywhere. With his second solo release from Mountain Fever Records, Load the Wagon, he’s in fine form once again, reminding listeners that he can wrap his voice around a bluegrass song in a way that few others can match.
Sisk has long been an advocate for the traditional side of bluegrass, and has often been rewarded by the industry for his commitment to that style (see the multiple IBMA awards that A Far Cry From Lester and Earl helped earn for proof). However, this album may be the most truly traditional work he’s done in years, embracing the sounds of the 1940s and ’50s with vigor. Names like Red Smiley, Charlie Moore, A.P. Carter, and Flatt & Scruggs are scattered throughout the songwriter credits. Sisk’s takes on these songs are fresh, yet hearken back to an earlier era.
Among the best is Smiley and Moore’s Best Female Actress. Dripping with sarcasm, Sisk takes on an unfaithful woman and her unlikely story: “You broke down outside a tavern, I guess that’s why I smell the beer.” Fiddle from Doug Bartlett sets a classic country heartbreak feel, while Jonathan Dillon’s mandolin and Tony Mabe’s banjo punctuate the song at just the right moments. Sisk has always had a way with sarcastic and tongue-in-cheek numbers, and this is no different. Opening track Get in Line Buddy, penned by Bill Yates, also has a touch of humor as it takes on struggling musicians who move to Nashville hoping to make it big (“Get in line buddy, you just got here yesterday.”) There’s a bit of Jimmy Martin to be found here, both in the sound and lyrics, and a nice toe-tapping beat.
Another highlight of the album is a Gospel number from Gerald Ellenburg, Craig Market, and Wayne Winkle, I’m Going There. Scruggs-style guitar backs Sisk’s earnest vocals as he ponders on the life awaiting him in heaven. The vocal quartet on the chorus is especially strong. Heather Berry Mabe’s vocals in particular mesh well with Sisk’s, both here and throughout the album. She actually takes the lead on an updated version of The Carter Family’s Lover’s Farewell, with Sisk joining in on the choruses. It’s a great uptempo number, with driving banjo, that’s sure to please both live audiences and radio fans.
Just Load the Wagon offers something not often – if ever – previously heard on a Sisk album: old-time banjo. J.R. Satterwhite wrote this catchy number, which takes a grandpa’s passed-down saying (“Don’t you worry about the mule, you just load the wagon”) and applies it to a number of situations. The song is a joy to discover, with Mabe’s banjo setting a dance-ready tune and Bartlett’s fiddle dancing in and out. Satterwhite also wrote Hooked on Bluegrass, which is perhaps the most standard Sisk-style song on the album, offering an ode to his “drug of choice” – bluegrass music. It contains one of my favorite lines on the album, as well: “Anything you love this much I guess could be a sin, so just in case I’ll turn to bluegrass Gospel now and then.”
I would be remiss to end this review without mentioning two additional songs. Lead single Lily Dale is yet another strong effort. Currently sitting at number one on the monthly Bluegrass Today chart, it’s been burning up the airwaves since its release several months ago. Updated from its origins in minstrel shows, Sisk has put a popular bluegrass spin on it – the upbeat, cheerful-sounding song about lost love. He’s also recut what is one of his most popular songs ever, He Died a Rounder at 21. It’s as good as ever, just Sisk with a tear in his voice and a quiet guitar.
The easiest way to describe Load the Wagon is that it’s the best album Sisk has released in years. He’s always good, but this one is a step above the rest. Excellent musicianship all the way around from the Mabes, Dillon, Bartlett, and Gary Creed on bass, and strong vocals throughout. This one should be an Album of the Year contender.