It may be lengthy, but we're sure you'll enjoy it.
From Tom Adams, "What you’ll read here is not a discussion about capos and string gauges or the intricacies of some up-the-neck backup lick, rather it’s the larger picture of what goes into bringing you those special moments that turn the heads of 5-string players—it’s that same dedication and discipline when Joe’s talking about his radio stations or working hard on the vocals in the band—you can insert the words “banjo playing” or “practicing the banjo” into any of those paragraphs and come away with ideas to play your five better than you’ve ever played it before."
Enjoy!! And thanks again, Tom!
Joe Mullins leads one of the most eclectic traditional bluegrass bands you’ll hear these days. Whether it’s a live performance at the Grand Ole Opry or one of the band’s singles or albums being featured in a Top Ten countdown show, the Radio Ramblers have hit on just the right combination of bluegrass, traditional country, and gospel music to propel them into the top tier of today’s touring bands.
I talked to Joe about the band, about his radio station network, and about playing the banjo. I’ve been a fan of his playing since back in the late 80s when I was touring with the Johnson Mountain Boys. One of the cassette tapes that we listened to for hours and hours and hundreds of miles up and down the roads was Joe playing banjo with The Traditional Grass, the band he founded with his father, Paul “Moon” Mullins in 1983.
Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers were named IBMA Emerging Artist of the Year in 2012.Bottom of a Mountain from their album “They’re Playing My Song” was a #1 bluegrass hit, and Joe’s latest recording with Junior Sisk, “Hall of Fame Bluegrass!” (2013) ranks with the first Bluegrass Album Band record for sparking interest in the rich traditional well of first-generation bluegrass recordings.
What you’ll read here is not a discussion about capos and string gauges or the intricacies of some up-the-neck backup lick, rather it’s the larger picture of what goes into bringing you those special moments that turn the heads of 5-string players—it’s that same dedication and discipline when Joe’s talking about his radio stations or working hard on the vocals in the band—you can insert the words “banjo playing” or “practicing the banjo” into any of those paragraphs and come away with ideas to play your five better than you’ve ever played it before.
Tom Adams: How did the Radio Ramblers come about?
Joe Mullins: Our band was born out of opportunity. If folks don’t know my history I was on the road full-time as a young guy with The Traditional Grass. In the mid-90s I had a great opportunity to buy the local radio station in Xenia, Ohio. So I came off the road in the summer of ’95 from touring full-time to jumping in and becoming an entrepreneur and rebuilding a local radio station and was fortunate to have success within a couple of years by having a radio station that thrived, that filled a need for the community and also filled a need for the bluegrass fans in one of the hotbeds of bluegrass music, southwestern Ohio.
And at the same time I got to keep a little bit of the national spotlight as a banjo player thanks to the Longview project. The timing was perfect. I got to develop my radio business but didn’t lose my chops completely as a player because the Longview thing came along just right—we did an album every couple of years and a few dozen special events around the country supporting those albums. But the radio business continued to grow and that’s the reason after the third Longview album I stepped aside.
And—the whole time that I’d been building a radio audience and a base for traditional country and bluegrass music here in southwestern Ohio, I’ve been a promoter. Whether that’s an arts council or a county fair or a community theater, if they’ve needed bluegrass entertainment, they’ve called me over the last 19 years. I’ve helped produce shows for everybody from Ricky Skaggs to Rhonda Vincent and right on down the list. But often times they didn’t have a budget that could bring in Ricky Skaggs or Rhonda Vincent—it might be a car lot or a furniture store having a grand opening. They wanted a live broadcast and it was, ‘oh yeah, can you hire us a bluegrass band—can we get some entertainment’.
So, what became Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers began as me calling four good, young players and singers here in the area and we played our first show in May of ’06. We got well-acquainted and figured out how to play and sing enough to entertain a few hundred radio listeners anywhere we showed up. So I said, if you guys want to try it a couple of times a month there’s opportunity here. We’ll get to stay close to home and play good gigs. And that’s what we did in ’06 and ’07. And then we might’ve traveled a couple hundred miles in ’08.
But we finally got to having a good time doing it to where we dug deep and found some good material for a recording that we put together in ’09, an album called “Rambler’s Call.” Rebel picked it up and I think in 09 and 10 we played forty dates and then all of a sudden with the distribution and just a little bit of national promotion we got calls from festival buyers and bluegrass concerts all over the country. So from 2011 to 2013 we did 80 dates, and this year it’s looking more like between 90 and 100. And, Tom, I keep doubling the price every year, but I just can’t get away from it! (both laugh)
BNL: You mentioned getting material together for that first album. What makes a Radio Ramblers song—what makes you decide, “this fits us”?
JM: We’re so fortunate to have great vocal variety. The band—right now and always—three of us that can sing lead and any other part, and I love that. I learned to love that when I first learned to sing, with the Traditional Grass. Often times when you’re looking at song selection—and there’s a difference between songs and tunes—we’ve got great pickers and if we want to do something that’s got a great instrumental flavor, we can—but when you’re looking at songs, sometimes the picking is just the frame around the picture. You start with the vocals. And I’m pretty choosy on song content. I love songs about ‘the old home on the hillside where mother’s buried’, but you’ve got to be real selective and not do songs that are the same ‘ol same ‘ol. So, you find something that’s got the right hook, the right flavor, that’s got the potential to have a vocal arrangement, that lets us keep a listener’s attention.
I’ve learned that so much in putting together our show for the stage. If we can get people to pay attention for about the first five songs, I think we can make them a Radio Ramblers fan with something that we do because we do a lot of different types of songs. That’s the whole key. That’s a tough question on ‘what makes a song’. There could be a song that we overlook because we just can’t figure out a way to make it fit us and the next thing you know, the Lonesome River Band’s made a hit out of it.
BNL: What’s your most requested song?
JM: There’s a couple of them. Our second release for Rebel was an all-hymn album. One of the radio programs that I’ve hosted here in Ohio for years is “The Gospel Hour: Hymns from the Hills,”and we took that title and did an album, a gospel project, and we did a trio arrangement of the old Grandpa Jones song Fallen Leaves. We kind of had a fresh arrangement on it—a trio all the way through, and we get a lot of requests for that.
There’s a gospel group from North Carolina that’s real popular with traditional gospel fans called the Primitive Quartet. The Primitives had done the song 25 years ago and I had mentioned to the leader of the Primitives, a great songwriter named Reagan Riddle, that my band’s going to do a version of Fallen Leaves, and he said, when you get ready to record that, call me—there’s a verse that nobody’s ever recorded. He said that song was a poem and Grandpa put the tune to it and recorded it but he didn’t use the first verse. So, he gave me the words to the first verse over the phone from the poem. I set the song up differently and wrote a completely different melody and sang the first few lines solo for the first verse and then we come in with the very familiar ‘first’ verse that everybody knows. I got lucky and came up with something unique that grabs people’s attention.
BNL: And what was another song?
JM: Our most recent release for the Radio Ramblers is an album called “They’re Playing My Song” and there’s a Bill Anderson song in there. Being in the country radio business you get a lot of material in the mail every week from classic Hall of Fame artists like Bill Anderson to new folks you never heard from in country and bluegrass both, and we play both on our radio station.
The song is Some Kind of War. It fit us just perfect. I first heard it just a few months before we went to the studio to finish our CD. I needed something new, something fresh. I’ve worn the traditionalist banner for all these years. It’s who I am but I’m not a guy who has to do something that sounds like Carter Stanley or Lester Flatt wrote it. I love to think outside the box and find things that can suit who we are and what we do.Some Kind of War wound up being a song that everybody embraced last year. It’s music with a message, one of those story songs that kind of hangs with you. Bill loved our version and he got the Opry management to have us a guest last year and we’ve been back a couple times since then.
Another song is Marty Stuart’s Farmer’s Blues. We did it very different, of course, from Marty and Merle (Haggard). It suited our local audience here in southwestern Ohio. I live out in the country and there’s hundreds of acres of corn and soybeans in every direction and we do a lot of county fairs, and people like the Farmer’s Blues, that’s for sure.
BNL: Do you still live in the same area where you grew up?
JM: I live a few counties north and east of where I grew up which was in Middletown, Ohio. My dad was on the radio there for about 25 years and it’s where I started my career in the early 80s; same radio station where Bobby Osborne sang for the first time and where Sonny met Jimmy Martin—WPFB in Middletown. I live between Xenia and Springfield, Ohio, about 20 minutes from my main radio station.
Another thing about Farmer’s Blues—it was so country it didn’t make it into the Top 20 for Marty Stuart and Merle Haggard. It bloomed and faded fast because Nashville just doesn’t like things like that.
BNL: Who programs your radio stations?
JM: There’s a team of us. I did it all myself for many, many years. But I’ve got veteran broadcasters that know how to play things that keep their audiences happy and my son is working in the studio and fills in for me when we’re on the road. He adds most of the new bluegrass to our playlist. He knows what’s going on.
BNL: You’re not beholden to some corporate entity in L.A. telling you what to play.
JM: No. I’d be out of business, just like everybody else. I ain’t doing it. Never have, never will. My dad was famous for being very, very rebellious against any sort radio management programming. If he didn’t like it he wouldn’t play it on the radio. I won’t say that I’m as hard-nosed or rebellious as my dad was but I’ve got to make a living and I’ve got to be loyal—true to who I am—and loyal to what I know my audience will respond to. We struck a balance between traditional country—traditional doesn’t mean that somebody’s been dead for 40 years, you know—there’s some great traditional country records released every year. We probably program about a third bluegrass and two thirds traditional country.
BNL: What makes a song a “traditional country” song?
JM: I don’t like songs that are overproduced—what did Larry Cordle’s song Murder on Music Rowsay—‘drums and rock ‘n’ roll guitars mixed right up in your face.’ I’ve been listening to Buck Owens & the Buckaroos, their famous “Live at Carnegie Hall” album. One of the best recorded albums ever, if you like traditional country music. And, it’s five guys that play with dynamics—two guitars, steel guitar, a bass and drums. But you can hear exactly what each man’s doing on his instrument. When they start singing, the vocals are out front, the music’s in the back, just a little flavor, a frame around the picture. When it’s time to pick, everybody pours the coal to it.
Same way with the dynamics of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. You had five guys that played with dynamics and they trained themselves by presenting their music around one microphone, live on the radio. And that’s another art that I absolutely love. The dynamics of programming a stage show like you’re doing a radio show. We do all of our vocals and the banjo around one microphone.
BNL: Have you done it that way since the band started?
JM: Yes. We only use four mics total with everything center stage around one microphone. I’m not saying people have to do it that way, but it allows us to control the dynamics. And it really helps us vocally. I really love picking—but you’ve got to be able to sing something that will touch people and make them remember the moment and remember the song.
BNL: Can you elaborate on using one mic for the vocals?
JM: It helps in perfect phrasing. And we can put the polish on that trio by knowing exactly who needs to be closer to the mic, farther from the mic, on every line of every song, so that the trio is balanced. When you’ve got three voices all within a few inches of each other around that one microphone you can control the blend. We’ve learned how to give our best effort on every line of every song by singing around one microphone.
BNL: A bit ago you mentioned you’re son working at the station. Is there another generation of Mullins pickers coming along with your family?
JM: No, not really. My son and daughter both love the same kind of music as me and my dad. They are huge fans of so many of today’s bluegrass bands. My daughter Sarah plays piano some and sings in church some and she’s about to finish up a degree program in nursing. Daniel is really into music journalism. He’s a writer for Bluegrass Today and he helps with programming new music at our radio station and he’s read the cover off of everything to do with bluegrass and country music history. He’s finishing up a degree program at a college here in Ohio that’ll let him do about whatever he wants to. So they’ll both graduate next spring from a great college here in Ohio.
BNL: Joe, what’s your most vivid memory of your dad?
JM: Hearing him on the radio, probably. He started his career as a fiddler first. He worked for the Stanleys the last half of ‘58 when he first got out of the army—never recorded with them, was young, scared—moved with them from Bristol to Live Oak, Florida and worked for them in the fall of ‘58 when they first started doing radio and television shows in Jacksonville and Live Oak. Then he came back to Kentucky and he started on the radio the first part of 1960. He and my mother moved to Middletown in 1964 and I was born a year later. I heard my dad on the radio the first thing in the morning and often times in the afternoon when I walked in off the school bus. So, my most vivid memories of my dad, that’s one of them.
Hearing him and hearing how passionate he presented the music. And that’s one thing he did here in southwestern Ohio—in the late 60s and early 70s when the bluegrass festivals were starting to really go—here was a guy on the radio that reached a potential audience of two million people from Dayton to Cincinnati. He was playing the current hits—Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash. He was playing those and right beside of them he was making the music of the Country Gentlemen and J.D. Crowe & the New South and the Seldom Scene just as significant or important as the top ten country hits. He programmed 50/50, country and bluegrass. He made it cool to be a bluegrass fan.
He really connected with people who had Appalachian roots like he did, and that’s a huge part of the population base in our metropolitan areas of Dayton-Middletown-Cincinnati. It was families just like him that had left the hills to get work; he connected with those people by being one of them. He was a clever enough broadcaster and a unique enough personality to capture people from all walks of life. And they might’ve tuned in to hear the weather forecast or the news or a new hit by Charlie Rich, but if they listened to him for more than a few weeks they wound up learning something about who Charlie Waller or Doyle Lawson or Lester and Earl and Carter and Ralph all were. If you listened to him long enough, you became knowledgeable about bluegrass music—and if you didn’t watch yourself, you’d become a fan.
BNL: Was your dad from a musical family—did someone in his parents’ generation play?
JM: No, he, like so many Appalachian kids, first got intrigued by listening to it on the radio. And he would tell the story so passionately about getting to see Flatt & Scruggs when he was in high school in ‘53, when Benny Martin was playing fiddle with them. They did a show on the courthouse steps in his hometown of Frenchburg, Kentucky and he could tell you every detail from the time they tuned up in the judge’s chambers ‘til they walked out on the courthouse steps and kicked off the show—and it absolutely hooked him to the core.
BNL: When you were growing up, were always musicians coming to the house? Out of the different bluegrass instruments what made you choose the banjo?
JM: I played guitar first. Dad was a good old-time, breakdown-style fiddle player and I got a little guitar when I was three or four years old and I learned G, C and D and learned how to follow him on fiddle tunes by the time I was five or six. Dad bought an RB-250 in ‘72 or ‘3 and sometime, probably I was 12 or 13, I got it out and just started fooling with it.
A 3-finger roll came to me very naturally. I knew how it was supposed to go—I had the privilege of seeing all the great banjo players pretty regularly when dad was producing shows or having musicians coming to the house. When dad saw me fooling with it he said you need to approach it with a Scruggs frame of mind and with a forward roll. That’s what I started with—a forward roll.
And I had the blessing of hearing Cripple Creek and John Henry and the Fire Ball Mail played right, you know—getting to see Noah Crase. He and dad played together a ton when I was growing up—great banjo player. And dad played quite a bit with Crowe. Seeing J.D. Crowe and Sonny Osborne and Ralph Stanley, Don Reno—seeing these guys when I was a kid—I knew how it was supposed to sound—and if you know where you’re going, it’s easier to get there.
BNL: What’s your main banjo these days?
JM: The newest version of an Osborne Chief, a model called the Rocky Top. It’s a mahogany banjo, nickel-plated finish and a new version of a Blaylock tone ring. Osborne Chief banjos, of course, are built by Frank Neat. I’ve been playing this banjo for about the last 10 months and it’s the banjo heard on “Hall of Fame Bluegrass”.
The banjo’s got a great third string on it. And it doesn’t lose anything with a capo. If you want to do a lot of stuff in Bb and B sometimes banjos—the tone can thin out or they can get quiet when you put a capo on them. This banjo is very balanced and very even. And I like the warm tone of the mahogany. I played maple banjos for about 20 years and I still have a good Granada, ‘94 model.
BNL: Which banjo is on “They’re Playing My Song”?—The up-the-neck sound is just killer.
JM: Thank you, that’s the ‘94 Granada. Almost all original. It does have a Robin Smith neck, thanks to an airline that got rough with it a few years ago.
BNL: What’s a typical day for Joe Mullins these days?
JM: I’m fortunate to have a professional team at my broadcast corporation. When we’re not on the road I go to the office for a few hours each morning. I produce two hours on-air weekdays, “Hymns from the Hills” and “The Banjo Show”. And those are live in the studio. The other thing that I have to do is keep my radio audience in contact with my radio advertisers. I still do live, ad-lib endorsement style radio commercials with the music during those two hours. And it’s a lot of fun. To be heard on four different radio stations and a webcast— that’s a great blessing, that’s the pole that holds the tent up for everything I do.
BNL: Is there banjo practice on your to-do list?
JM: Absolutely. That’s evenings. Working the schedule we’re working I’m always spending the last couple of hours on the phone, returning emails, working with Rebel Records and with East Public Relations.
BNL: You do your own booking –
JM: Yeah, I’ve got one part-time professional person that manages the office for the Radio Ramblers, taking care of press kits and contracts. My son Daniel manages the band’s website. I still field a lot of phone calls and then keep the guys all in communication. I enjoy a little bit of down time in the evening with my wife. And then when she gets ready to go to her sewing room or to log on to Facebook, I head to the practice room.
I’ve got one corner of the house here that’s a parking lot for banjos and I try to get it out every day we’re not on the road. Some days it doesn’t happen. But I get it out of the case and I’ll try to play for 20 or 30 minutes. And the older I get the more I am compelled to do that. It seems like when I was 28 it was all so much easier but now at 48 if I go two or three days and don’t get it out of the case, it takes me twice as long to get comfortable again before I got back on stage.
BNL: Is there something you play every time you sit down to pick?
JM: I almost always—I’ve had this habit this past year or two—when I get that thing out of the case, I play the Fire Ball Mail first thing. It’s a great warm-up tune for me. It’s 90% forward rolls. I’ll play Fire Ball Mail I bet for five minutes when I first get it out and I’ll start out playing it at a slow to medium speed. And after I play it two or three times I’ll put it at the tempo where you want to hear it, where Scruggs recorded it or where you would do it on stage. And I’ll keep playing it. And I’ll play the regular Fire Ball Mail break, every version and variety you can think of, and then I’ll go up the neck and do the same thing. And it’s mainly to get my right hand comfortable, it’s mainly for right hand control.
BNL: Do you have a favorite banjo tune?
JM: To listen to—- there’s a list, you know. The original recording of Flint Hill Special has got to be on that list as do the original recordings of Pike County Breakdown and If I Should Wander Back Tonight. The Foggy Mountain Banjo album—grab anything off that and it still lights my fire to hear that stuff. But not just Scruggs. There’s a list of things by Don Reno and Allen Shelton and of course Sonny Osborne and J.D. Crowe and Ralph Stanley that are on that list also.
BNL: The players you just mentioned—you got to meet and watch them play up close. Who comes to mind when you think of someone you didn’t get to see in person.
JM: I’m a Johnny Cash fan. I never got to see Cash in person. I got to see a lot of great entertainers through the years, but, Cash was just larger than life for a lot of people. I’ve read all of his autobiographies and I always thought it was cool how he connected with multiple audiences. He was so much bigger than country music. There’s something very intriguing about Johnny Cash. Successful.
And very simple—man, that’s something else that I’m into these days—simplicity. There’s a Scruggs quote about simplicity that I’ve heard Stubbs pull out quite a bit “The beauty of simplicity will never be surpassed.” And you go back and listen to some of the great recordings like the 1960 cut of “You Don’t Know My Mind” by Jimmy Martin. It’s J.D. Crowe and Benny Martin and one man singing his heart out, and a strong rhythm section –
BNL: —with a great recorded sound of the bass on that cut.
JM: Oh yeah, man the tone is fat. And it’s all so in-the-pocket. The simplicity of Cash’s music, Buck Owens’ music, Merle Haggard’s music. Same thing in great bluegrass recordings. Simplicity goes a long way. I’m not saying every recording I like has only three chords. But when you talk about Jimmy Martin and Flatt & Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers and the Osborne Brothers, and Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash—you’re talking about simple, three-chord music that people are still talking about fifty years later.
BNL: Speaking of recording, your new album will be out at about the time this goes to press. How do you like to record when you go in?
JM: We go in and focus first on a solid rhythm track and let the guitar rhythm and bass and mandolin chop put everything exactly where it needs to be. The first key, though, is to prepare. Prepare diligently. We work hard on song selection and then song arrangement. And you’ve got to be able to have played a song enough to understand the dynamics of it before you try to record it.
You can’t fake dynamics in the studio. You can, but I don’t want to do that. As sterile as the studio environment is, if you don’t go in there prepared it’s really hard to be satisfied. So we put down a great rhythm track first and then I like to put down the lead vocal so that you know how to build the dynamics around that. But long before that, I’ve got a real good idea of what I want to play.
BNL: Do you typically play the songs out first or will people be hearing them for the very first time when the CD comes out?
JM: On the forthcoming CD I’d say we’ve probably done four or five them in our set. A few of them have become favorites of ours and a few of them have got a test drive on stage and they feel good and they go over good, but I really don’t worry about all that. I’m more of a “build it and they’ll come” type guy. I pick out songs that I know suit us, songs that we can sell to an audience, songs that will sound good on the radio.
One thing that is pretty true of our band when you come to see the Radio Ramblers, out of doing four albums in the last six years, we can do almost every song we’ve recorded. I say almost. There are a few tunes that never made into the set list regularly, every band has that. But we can actually do the songs on our recordings and they sound like us. I’m not saying that everybody else can’t, but we’re pretty pure and pretty real.
BNL: That’s something you plan and think about—to record something in a way that you can go out and reproduce that sound on stage?
JM: That’s so much of it. Bluegrass—the niche we fill—if a bluegrass band enjoys good sales on a recording it’s because you have good opportunity to get in front of good audiences. Sales and downloads—there’s more opportunity than ever, but still I think one of the most rewarding parts about having a bluegrass band is being able to walk on stage and sell your music in person to an audience. Sell it physically by looking good and sounding good and then sales at concerts and festivals are still very important to the lifeblood of a bluegrass band.
BNL: You build these recordings and this band—what it does it take, then, what keeps it going?
JM: It takes good communications. We all have to share in the goal. And I think it takes encouragement. We have to continually encourage each other. And when you have the opportunity to be encouraged by family and fans and peers that helps, too. Keeping a band together, you’ve got to set egos aside. On the bus or on the stage or in the studio it’s about the best opportunity to present this song or this show and have it connect with the most people possible.
It’s not about who can play the fastest or who can sing the highest or who’s done this the longest. It’s about, ok, we have an opportunity to sell our music to this audience— and I’m not talking monetarily—I’m talking, to win this audience with five guys standing here with instruments and singing a song. And we’re passionate and we’re professional and we try to be consistent. It doesn’t matter how tired you are, how rough it was last night with a bad sound system in the rain. When somebody’s taken the time to sit down as an audience member in front of the Radio Ramblers, we’ve got to sing and smile and give one hundred percent.
And, everybody’s in it to win it. It’s sincere and it’s not only between us and the audience. Sometimes me and the guys give each other a little pep talk and I remind them continually of how fortunate we are—there are a lot of people who wish they could play a few tunes on the banjo or the fiddle and they just may not have the ability or the opportunity. And there are also great players that we all have met over the years all around the country that for one reason or another just never got the opportunity to be heard outside of their neighborhood. So, we’re so fortunate and so thankful.