Baucom, Bibey & BlueRidge,
Come Along With Me
(Sugar Hill, 2002)

Whether or not you like this new album isn't so much dependent on how much you like banjo player Terry Baucom and mandolinist Alan Bibey, or even bassist Eddie Biggerstaff and fiddler Dewey Brown, as it is on how much you like the group's new lead vocalist, Junior Sisk. My mama always told me never to mess with guys named Junior or Sonny, as they were always the toughest guys around, but I don't have much choice here. Junior Sisk is the straw that stirs this bluegrass drink, and he's the reason that I don't cotton much to the taste.

Sisk's gravelly voice seems to be from another time, a pre-bluegrass era of string-band country music in which raw feeling was more important than vocal intonation. Sisk very often strays off pitch, flatting notes to no dramatic effect. When he scoops up to notes, as he does consistently in the album's title track, it takes so long for him to get there that it sounds constantly flat. This scooping is a common practice that often proves effective, but not with Sisk. There's also an often unpleasant howling quality to his voice, as in "I'll Still Write Your Name in the Sand."

The classic bluegrass vocalists of yesterday, like Jimmy Martin, Mac Wiseman, Carter Stanley and Lester Flatt, as well as today's top bluegrass voices like Del McCoury, sometimes evince a raw sound, but there is always a precision, a laser intensity, a determination to hold pitch. They were never wavering or unfocused, as sometimes seems the case with Sisk. For example, hear, in his solo at the start of "He Broke the Chains," the inability of the sustained notes to hold pitch. Things improve when the vocal ensemble enters, and since Sisk blends well with the others, I have to conclude that the weaknesses of his solo style stems from conscious choice, which further suggests that he can make some changes, should he be so inclined.

I hate to harp so much on what I consider Sisk's vocal shortcomings, but his leads are in abundance on this CD. For all I know, this style could be just the kind of unpolished mountain sound that a lot of bluegrass fans are looking for, so I suggest you give the sample tracks on a listen and decide for yourself if you're willing to overlook the pitch problems. If so, there's plenty of fine music here. The instrumental work is of the highest caliber. A lightning fast instrumental by Bibey, "Vandiver" (probably named after Bill Monroe's Uncle Pen), enlivens the proceedings, and "Prayer Bells of Heaven" shows a solid harmony blend. Ed Biggerstaff's lead vocal on "The New John Henry Blues," and Bibey's lead on "Livin' It Up" are like breaths of fresh air amid the many Sisk vocals.

Though I can't recommend this one, bluegrass fans are advised to listen first -- that's what website samples are for -- and make up their own minds. If you like the lead vocals, you'll like the album, and if not, you won't. It's that simple.

[ by Chet Williamson ]
Rambles: 13 July 2002

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