Album Review: Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers – Hymns From the Hills
Banjo player Joe Mullins has bluegrass in the blood. Radio, too–he’s the son of the late disc jockey/fiddler Paul “Moon” Mullins, who was one of the Stanley Brothers’ Clinch Mountain Boys, performed with his son in the Traditional Grass, and spent over four decades as a broadcaster in Southwest Ohio.
The younger Mullins, who recently won the Bluegrass DJ of the Year award from the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America (SPBGMA), airs a bluegrass gospel program called Hymns from the Hills on his radio stations, hence the title of his new album with his four man band, The Radio Ramblers. It’s the group’s first gospel record, one that mixes traditional songs and religious country and bluegrass tunes with solid new material. It’s also an album that sets a high water mark for any of the group’s future gospel releases.
Hymns from the Hills kicks off with a sprightly banjo intro leading to Rambler Adam McIntosh’s lead vocal on his song “He Loves Me.” It’s a pretty simple song–there’s nothing especially mind-blowing about it, anyway–but it it’s a fantastic, traditional-sounding bluegrass song that sounds as though it might have been cherry-picked from one of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs’ Martha White television shows. It’s not hard to imagine this one becoming a staple bluegrass bands and jams.
Though Mullins & The Radio Ramblers are above average pickers, the best moments of the album come when the instruments are back in their cases. The two a cappella songs on Hymns from the Hills are simply stunning: “Rock of Ages Keep My Soul” showcases the vocal talents of the Ramblers and the clear-voiced Joe Mullins, who sings tenor on this track, while “O the Love of My Redeemer” is delivered in crisp four-part harmony by Mullins, Ramblers Adam McIntosh and Mike Terry, and guest vocalist Dale Perry.
The artists that contribute to Hymns are some of bluegrass music’s best and brightest, with a few talented industry outsiders added to the mix. Doyle Lawson appears on the Louvin Brothers’ song “I’ll Never Go Back;” he and Mullins do a fine job mimicking Ira and Charlie’s harmonies, and Lawson contributes his mandolin as well. Sunday school staple “Jesus Loves Me” begins with a children’s choir from Mullins’ church; they sound nice enough. However, the song doesn’t really get good until Ralph Stanley takes over, his voice a perfectly ragged counterpart to the purity of the choir. Rhonda Vincent contributes her golden voice to a pair of songs including closer “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” a traditional song with a delicate piano arrangement contributed by Missy Everidge (a skilled pianist who’s also the wife of Mullins’ pastor).
Hymns from the Hills is the strongest of Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers’ three albums; furthermore, it’s arguably one of the best gospel releases bluegrass music has seen in the past decade. Though it’s only been out for a couple weeks, the album already feels like an old friend.
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