Album Review: Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers – Hymns From the Hills

Juli Thanki | February 22nd, 2011

Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers - Hymns from the HillsBanjo 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.

4.5 Stars

  1. Jon
    February 22, 2011 at 6:35 am

    One of the best of the decade and it still doesn’t get five stars?! Tough grader! ;-)

  2. WAYNOE(Who Am I)
    February 22, 2011 at 8:12 am

    It would seem like a sell-out if a reviewer, or critic, or music journalist, or whatever one calls them would give a maximum rating for a work. They “might” feel irrelevant if they did this.

  3. Barry Mazor
    February 22, 2011 at 8:17 am

    Waynoe, if you really can’t tell the difference between those functions, as opposed to engaging in another bit of posturing, that’s your problem. This review, for instance, is labeled a review. Some people called on to do them are journalists, some not, but what’s what is generally pretty well delineated here.

    What, by the way, would make a commenter irrelevant? Knee-jerk repetition maybe?

  4. WAYNOE(Who Am I)
    February 22, 2011 at 8:32 am

    Barry,

    I am glad this particular work is noticed. Good traditionalist music that is reminiscent of Doyle and the boys. Other comments ignored.

  5. Jon
    February 22, 2011 at 9:53 am

    “reminiscent of Doyle and the boys.”

    Not unless “Doyle and the boys” (love the fake familiarity) are the only bluegrass band you’ve ever heard.

  6. WAYNOE
    February 22, 2011 at 10:35 am

    @Jon – Wrong know-it-all. I have heard many. Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver was one of the first bands I heard when I started listening to this genre some twenty-five years ago and they were putting out solid gospel-bluegrass then as now. Always had an appreciation for their distinctive sound and Mr. Lawson’s professionalism. His band has been a breeding ground for a lot of other players.

    And I still say Mullins and RR remind me of them whether your drooping ears agree or not. Matters none. It’s all taste and preference, which is why other’s opinions, though fun to comment on, are completely irrelevant to me forming my own.

    And yes, we all know you are a bluegrass extraordinaire.

  7. Donald
    February 22, 2011 at 4:41 pm

    >>>Hymns from the Hills is the strongest of Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers’ three albums<<<

    Three? Did I miss one? Because, if I did, I'll need to revise the review I wrote on Monday morning…which, dang nabbit, uses some of the same words Juli's review does. Please let me know. Thanks, Donald

  8. Juli
    February 22, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    Donald,

    There was Tuned In in 2007 (Doesn’t look like it’s on Amazon, but it’s for sale here: http://www.countysales.com/products.php?product=JOE-MULLINS-AND-THE-RADIO-RAMBLERS-%27Tuned-In%27 ) and Rambler’s Call in 2009.

    Looking forward to reading your review!

  9. Jon
    February 22, 2011 at 5:57 pm

    Yes, three. First one, Tuned In, was self-released. Rambler’s Call was self-released, then reissued by Rebel.

  10. Donald
    February 22, 2011 at 8:37 pm

    Thanks Jon and Juli; Tuned In isn’t listed on Joe’s website, far as I can tell. Donald

  11. Jon
    February 22, 2011 at 10:00 pm

    It’s referred to on the Radio Ramblers page on the website for Joe’s radio station, WBZI (which is really worth listening to, by the way), http://www.myclassiccountry.com/RadioRamblershome.htm . My guess is that it’s essentially out of print, and County Sales’ listing represents final stock. It’s a good album, with some great cuts – “Each Minute Seems A Million Years” is especially strong – but the newer ones are much better; the band was still barely a part-time project when the first one was made.

  12. Donald
    February 22, 2011 at 11:46 pm

    >>>WBZI (which is really worth listening to, by the way)<<< Jon, if only I could! Perhaps you know- why is it that some US stations can't steam outside of the country? Is it commercial vs community? Donald

  13. Jon
    February 23, 2011 at 7:19 am

    I don’t think so, I think it’s a matter of whether they want to deal with the licensing complications. The same goes in the other direction, too.

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