Show off your holiday lights and you could win an iPad! Enter your photo by December 13. Winner will be selected by popular vote.
Junior Sisk (left) and Joe Mullins have teamed up on a new album, “Hall of Fame Bluegrass.”
Courtesy of Rebel Records
Junior Sisk recently won the International Bluegrass Music Association’s award for best male singer.
Saturday, October 26, 2013
One of the biggest days of bluegrass singer Junior Sisk’s professional life happened on Sept. 26. On that day, the Franklin County native took the International Bluegrass Music Association’s award for best male singer. For Sisk, who had previously won in song and album categories, it was the first individual award.
“Blown out of my seat” is the way Sisk described that winning feeling in a recent phone call from his home in Ferrum. “I didn’t have no idea this was coming, for sure.”
He had been nominated several times, along with other bluegrass vocal greats such as Russell Moore, Dan Tyminski, Audie Blaylock and Jamie Dailey. Finally, it was Sisk’s turn.
“He’s still one of my favorite singers of all time,” Sisk said of Moore, who has won five times. “For me just to be nominated in the category he’s in is awesome, but to win it is hard to explain.”
But Sisk has not had to worry so much about explaining that particular emotion. Instead, he has found himself explaining a song on his most recent album with his band, Ramblers Choice. The song, “Old Bicycle Chain,” has been popular as a live song and has been a minor hit on bluegrass radio stations.
It’s a jaunty number, as written by Billy Smith, Marilyn Smith and Kenny Mullins, and it portrays a man breaking up with a woman over a list of cornball grievances.
“I saw you hide that piece of pizza/When you heard me comin’ down the hall/I know you been fakin’ your headaches/Bet you’re the one that broke my bowlin’ ball,” Sisk sings before his band, Ramblers Choice, joins him for harmonies on a chorus that takes a dark turn.
“And don’t come back messin’ ‘round here/Or I’ll whoop you with an old bicycle chain.”
Bluegrass Today’s online Oct. 1 radio airplay chart listed “Old Bicycle Chain” at No. 11 among the genre’s recent singles, a jump of six spots from the previous month.
But critics have noted complaints about the song ever since its release, Sisk said. He said he knew he was in for some backlash when popular bluegrass blogger Ted Lehman brought up the song.
“I must say that ‘Old Bicycle Chain’ takes this genre song a step too far in suggesting the use of a bicycle chain as an appropriate means of discipline,” he wrote at tedlehmann.blogspot.com. “Spousal abuse is not the stuff of humor.”
At the World of Bluegrass Week, which ran Sept. 24-28 in Raleigh, N.C., and centered on the IBMA Awards Show, a conference devoted to women in bluegrass focused on “Old Bicycle Chain,” with most in the room castigating the song.
Shortly after the awards week, and after at least one venue responded by saying they would not book him, Sisk and his camp released an announcement that he would not be performing the song any longer.
“I would like to apologize to anyone who has taken offense by this song,” he wrote. “It was never my intention to support any sort of violence. It was a good up-tempo song that we thought would cause a chuckle.
“For those of you who request and enjoy the song, sorry, you will no longer be hearing it live.”
In an interview after he issued the news release, Sisk said that the song was simply an attempt at humor.
“We’re not supporting any type of abuse at all.” Sisk said, before comparing his song to “Knoxville Girl,” an old-time number in the “murder ballad” tradition. “It’s just meant to be a funny song. ‘Knoxville Girl,’ [and] a lot of different songs are way worse than what this song is.”
I believe Sisk when he claims he meant no harm. Sisk, who is a respected and beloved member of the bluegrass community, has multiple IBMA Awards and is as nice as he is talented.
But “Knoxville Girl,” “Pretty Polly” and “Banks of The Ohio” — as well as such blues numbers such as “Crow Jane” — were written a long time ago, in eras that predate larger outrage about violence against women, and they had a different lyrical character.
Stephen Winick, a folklorist at the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress, and one of the Library’s folksong experts, wrote that most versions of those songs feature repentance or punishments — either here or in the afterlife.
“In American versions of ‘Pretty Polly,’ it usually ends by saying he has ‘a debt to the Devil,’ i.e. he’s condemned to hell,” Winick wrote in response to an e-mail query. “In longer versions, usually from Britain or Canada (or New England), Polly’s Ghost comes back and either drives him crazy or kills him outright.”
Winick did not make a judgment on whether it is OK to sing a song such as “Bicycle Chain,” or whether it was funny.
But I think I can make a judgment on such a song’s place in the commercial world. Let’s compare “Old Bicycle Chain” with Tyler Farr’s recent country hit single, “Redneck Crazy.” That song is No. 10 on the Billboard country chart this week, having peaked at No. 2. After 33 weeks in the chart, it has sold more than 500,000 copies, according to Billboard.biz.
Check out these lyrics: “Gonna drive like hell through your neighborhood/Park this Silverado on your front lawn/Crank up a little Hank, sit on the hood and drink/I’m about to get my pissed off on.
“I’m gonna aim my headlights into your bedroom windows/Throw empty beer cans at both of your shadows/I didn’t come here to start a fight, but I’m up for anything tonight/You know you broke the wrong heart baby, and drove me redneck crazy.”
I honestly don’t see how that is a more acceptable threat than the one in bicycle chain. But it’s a money-making hit, and you can bet that Farr will be singing it to a raucous response when he opens for Florida Georgia Line at Salem Civic Center on Nov. 22.
As stalkery as Farr’s number is, it’s making money for a record label, a publishing house and a songwriting team. It is highly unlikely that anyone will decline to book Farr in response to this song. So he won’t have to be issuing any apologies for it, and he’ll probably be playing it for the rest of his career, however long that is.
Because it doesn’t matter how acceptable the threat is. What matters is how commercial it is.
Sisk is more than ready to get beyond the issue, and he’s already got a replacement song in his set. It is “Wild Mountain Honey.” Sisk and another bluegrass star, Joe Mullins, teamed up to cover it on their new album, “Hall of Fame Bluegrass.” The disc is loaded with covers of songs written or performed by such Bluegrass Hall of Fame members as The Osborne Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs and Del McCoury . “Wild Mountain Honey,” for example, is an Arthur Q. Smith song recorded by the Osbornes and Red Allen.
“I think it’s turned out really well,” Sisk said of the Rebel Records-released disc. “We’re looking forward to a good year.”
I’m betting it’s a strong candidate for the 2014 IBMA Awards album of the year — and it won’t come with a side of controversy.
What are your thoughts on songs such as “Bicycle Chain” and “Redneck Crazy”? Go to blogs.roanoke.com/cutnscratch to join the conversation.
Weather Journal7 wintry scenarios for Sunday