Hymns From The Hills
REVIEW BY: Curtis Jones
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 07/15/2012
Joe Mullins and his group the Radio Ramblers kind of took the bluegrass world by surprise. Their first album Rambler's Call did about as well as a regional group could expect, but their second album Hymns From The Hills broke into the bluegrass world's consciousness with great prejudice.
It's hard to know where to start with this album, so I will start with the guest vocalists. Mullins was able to achieve a veritable who's who of bluegrass music. While some artists are able to maybe get one guest artist on an album, Mullins was able to get five! Larry Sparks, Rhonda Vincent, Paul Williams, Doyle Lawson, and the granddaddy of them all, Ralph Stanley, all step up for their spotlight at least once. In fact, on a 14 song album, guest artists appear on seven tracks. Mullins, who no doubt was able to get these artists through his many years in other bluegrass groups and his "day job" as the owner of a radio station in southwestern Ohio, really scored a coup here. However, because there are so many songs that are another bluegrass singer backed up by Mullins and his group, it almost becomes two albums – one with guests and one that is just Joe Mullins And The Radio Ramblers.
From the material that just Mullins and the group do, the group is firmly planted in traditional quartet style mountain gospel. Songs like “He Loves Me” and “Fallen Leaves” chart familiar bluegrass gospel territory with good quartet vocals with a somewhat nasal tenor sound. The group does two a cappella quartet numbers as well. “Rock of Ages, Keep My Soul” is a familiar tune in many Southern churches where the red backed “Church Hymnal” that carries so many early camp meeting style quartet songs, is still used. “O The Love of My Redeemer” is a newer song that seems to take its inspiration from the older 1700s hymns by William Bradbury or John Newton.
The real cream in this album is the tracks with the other bluegrass artists. These tracks are set apart from the others by far. Larry Sparks shares the mic with the group on two excellent songs “Come On” and “That Little Old Country Church House.” Ralph Stanley comes in to work on an ingenious arrangement of “Jesus Loves Me.” Although this song was set to music by William Bradbury in 1862, and has all the heft of other hymns from that period of songwriting, it has been co-opted by children under 10 and Sunday school teachers the world over as a song for children. Mullins’ version starts out with a group of children singing the verses (which sounds like it was recorded at a Sunday morning service somewhere), and the band comes in to sing the chorus. The real genius is when the 84 year old Ralph Stanley comes in to sing verses that are modified to suit his old age. “Jesus loves me this I know, though my hair is white as snow,” etc. The range from the youngest to the oldest participating in this song drives home the point that it is not just a children’s song. The message that it sends is for all ages.
Paul Williams helps out on a song he co-wrote with Mullins, “Hold On To The Old Gospel Way,” which, along with “Come On” and “Jesus Loves Me” is probably the best on the album. Paul Williams returns with Rhoda Vincent on the third verse of the beautiful rendition of “Sweet Hour Of Prayer” which closes the album in good fashion.
Many bluegrass fans are also very religious people, and gospel music has been inextricably intertwined with the genre since its inception. So a good way to win over new fans is to produce a stellar gospel album. This has certainly been done by Joe Mullins And The Radio Ramblers and the litany of guest artists he combines on Hymns From The Hills. The challenge now will be to do a stellar follow up.