Junior Sisk was the sort of teenager who’d wear out vinyl LPs while he spent hours and hours digesting how Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs emulated first-generation bluegrass duo the Stanley Brothers. So, really, he isn’t that different from any other self-taught, Gen X record buff — except that he’s immersed in an unplugged genre that’s thrived since the middle of the last century.
Sisk is a bona fide bluegrass star who’s been racking up some of his industry’s biggest awards of late. Part of it is that he’s a fine, to-the-bone traditional singer. But he’s also a collector of stand-out songs, including his dad’s, Tom T. Hall’s and old obscure tunes. On his new album, The Day That I Died, there’s a little bit of everything — that is, everything that suits the hardcore bluegrass attack of his band, Rambler’s Choice.
A lot of people don’t have a sense of what the career of a leading bluegrass act looks like. How many road dates do you typically do a year, and what kinds of venues do you usually play?
Sisk: Most of the time we shoot for around a hundred dates a year. We’re really close to that now. We’re in the eighties, I’d say, now. It’s been pretty much that way since I started the Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice band again. … The best compliment you could have is when you come offstage and the promoter asks you back. That’s what we’re all about.
For a time there, you were handling booking, management and publicity duties yourself. When were you able to hand those responsibilities off?
About a year and a-half ago, actually. Steve Johnson from Mountain Music Entertainment approached me and said, “If you ever need any help with anything, like PR work or even booking or anything like that, you give me a shout.” I got home that weekend, and it seemed like all my time was spent on the computer and on the phone, haggling over two or three hundred dollars at a show, trying to get all the work I can for the band. I didn’t have time to fish and spend time with the family or anything. So I took him up on that.
He’s now the artist relations manager at Merlefest. I thought I might could do it again on my own, just go ahead and do the booking again. But I got to thinking about how much time I spent in this office on the phone. So I approached Jim Roe with Roe Entertainment. … A big burden off of me.
A lot of bluegrass musicians apprentice in other bands before starting their own thing. What was that dues-paying and reputation-building process like for you?
I started out with Wyatt Rice & Santa Cruz. We had three good years there, and then we had the first Rambler’s Choice right after that for two or three years. Then I went with Lost & Found for about six months. Then I went with the band BlueRidge for about five years. We recorded three albums together, and that’s where I really got my recognition as a lead singer. We had some fairly decent success with that band.
After we disbanded, I really didn’t know what I was gonna do. I thought I might just go with a band that was already established so I wouldn’t have to go through all this brand new again. I told everybody else, “Whatever you do, don’t start your own band. It’s so hard to do anymore.” I thought I was crazy myself when I decided to go ahead and do it. I started to go work at Lowes or somewhere and say, “To heck with it,” and come home every night. But I guess when it’s in your system, it’s there.
Tim Massey, my cousin, had just left Carolina Road, and he was open. Me and him got together and started picking a little bit. I said, “Let’s give it a shot and see where it goes.”
You’ve named the Stanley Brothers, and especially Carter Stanley, as a big influence. What’d you take from the Stanley Brothers style, sound and repertoire?
I was absolutely raised on the Stanley Brothers. My dad had most of their records. I counted ‘em here not too long ago. I have 55 Stanley Brothers records. … As far as Carter Stanley, I always loved his material because I think he lived a lot of what he wrote. Great songwriter, and couldn’t nobody else bring the song across better than Carter. That came right on down the line. Keith Whitley followed in his footsteps — and Larry Sparks. They’re all my heroes. So I’m just another generation of the Stanley Brothers.
Did you take anything from how they handled their career?
Yes, I did. I like their hard-driving bluegrass. That’s what I like. They could make you fall out on the floor laughing, or they could bring you to tears in the next song. Just stuff like that … and their appearance. We try to dress for the fans, to let ‘em know that we appreciate ‘em being there. … Also, through the years I’ve been playin’, [I’ve learned] if you’re not on top of your game, if you look the part, that helps a whole lot. (laughs)
Generations of country and bluegrass musicians have made the move to Nashville, but the Stanley Brothers stayed in Virginia. I wondered if you’ve ever been tempted to leave Virginia for Nashville, and if they had anything to do with you staying put.
That’s a good place to visit, but I love it here around my area, down here in southwest Virginia. I just love the many seasons. We get ‘em all here. I love the mountains. And all my family’s from around this area. This used to be the hotbed of bluegrass music. I live, like, five miles from the Bluegrass Cardinals. I’m 17 miles from Allen Mills of Lost & Found. Ronnie Bowman used to be about three or four miles from me, and Dan Tyminski also lived here in town. … I don’t have any plans on leaving this area. I can travel from here and get to anywhere I need to go. I tell everybody that I play bluegrass music in order to have three months off during the year to be able to hunt. (laughs)
Your dad seems to be your most frequent songwriting partner. What’s it like writing with somebody you know that well?
We actually have never sat down and wrote a song together. He writes two or three songs a week, pretty much. … He always writes at the top of the page, “Play in the key of D, sing like Carter Stanley.” I’ve told him time and time again, “You can’t do that. They all would sound the same, Dad.” So I take the songs. I can tell right away if the words are gonna fit me or not. I sit with the guitar and rearrange it and change some words around, and that’s how I become co-writer. He’s the main writer. I just have to change things around to suit me.
You also mentioned Ronnie Bowman. He recorded your songs with the Lonesome River Band 20 years ago. You’ve since recorded lots of songs he wrote or co-wrote, like “If the Bottle Was a Bible,” on the new album. Is it harder to get ahold of his songs now that he’s such an in-demand bluegrass and country songwriter?
When we start lookin’, he’s pretty much No. 1 on my list. I give him a shout. He’s got me to believe that I don’t have to be so hardcore traditional. I can take a country song and turn it into a traditional bluegrass song, my style. The first song that comes to mind is “A Little Bit of This, a Little Bit of That” on the first project. When I first heard that, I loved the song. I said, “It just ain’t my style. I don’t think it will fit.” He said, “Give it a try.” You know, he produced the first project. Man, it’s one of my favorite songs we’ve ever done today, and I think “If the Bottle Was a Bible” is gonna be a great tune as well.
You’ve recorded Tom T. and Dixie Hall compositions, too. Some people may not know that Tom T. is a prolific bluegrass songwriter these days.
I say No. 1, but I’d have to split the difference. I call both Ronnie and Tom T. looking for material. I am so blessed. I am in my office right now, and I’m turned around here looking. I’ve got a stack, probably close to two foot high right now with songs that people sent me that I haven’t even went through yet because our new project’s just out. … I’m still trying to remember the words to the new songs.
It’s a big thing in bluegrass to do standards. But you have a knack for digging up old songs that haven’t been done a lot in recent years. How do you find those songs?
I have a lot of LPs, and the titles that I don’t recognize, I listen to ‘em closely, and I say, “Man, that would be almost like a brand new song to so many people.” Just like on our new project here, “Drinkin’ at the Water Hole,” that’s an old Larry Sparks number, probably on one of his first recordings. The same as that Del McCoury song, “How Can I Explain What I Can’t Understand.” That was on one of his first projects. It’s not something that you hear at a jam session. You very seldom hear it. And then when people do hear it, it’s like a brand new tune to them.
Your song “A Far Cry From Lester and Earl” expresses a familiar perspective but one that’s seldom spelled out in song form: keeping the memory of first-generation bluegrassers and the canon of bluegrass standards alive. What’d it say to you when it won IMBA and SPBGMA song of the year awards?
Well, winning was a big surprise and a big honor, of course. It made me realize that a lot of people were thinkin’ the same way but never said anything about it. … I say this a lot onstage: I love all types of bluegrass music. But my heart and soul is in traditional bluegrass music.