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Peter Stenshoel's Album of the Week: The Family Circle by Joe Isaacs with Lily




Mother's Day can be a complicated celebration. Many a family tree has fractures or grafted branches.   Bluegrass musicians often sing of a "hard life of trouble," and the Isaacs have had their share, amidst awards and acclaim from aficionados of the genre.

Joe Isaacs was a Kentucky native, the 17th son of an evangelist pastor.  For a while he played with the great Ralph Stanley, whose voice he consciously emulated.   He moved to New York City for a stint with Frank Wakefield and the Greenbriar Boys.  It reportedly left him stranded there for a year.  In that time, he met Lily.  Born in Munich, Lily Fishman was the Jewish daughter of Polish Holocaust survivors.  Her parents had been imprisoned in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp during the Second World War.  Other family members had perished there.  She had never heard any bluegrass beyond The Beverly Hillbillies theme song.  She was a folk singer who had recorded album for Columbia Records and was singing in musical theater.  She liked Barbra Streisand.

The unlikely pair fell in love and married.  According to the biography on the CMT website, "Their marriage in 1970 prompted a journalist to write that the teaming of Joe and Lily was 'analogous to Ralph Stanley joining Joan Baez.'"  Lily became an accomplished singer in Joe's band.  Then, tragedy hit.  Joe's brother was killed in a car crash.  The funeral service had an effect on self-professed agnostics, Joe and Lily.  Independently, Joe committed to his dad's faith; Lily converted to Christianity, which hit her parents extremely hard.  The band decided to play no professional clubs; only churches.

Eventually, their children joined the band.  Lily's music theater background broadened the sound, to the point that some bluegrass purists rejected them, but they remained stars of the Grand Ole Opry.

After 29 years of marriage, a divorce found Joe no longer in the family band he had brought about. Respect remains on either side, but Joe set about on a fresh career, slowed down by health concerns.

Lily Isaacs continues to lead the band with her children.

This 1975 album, The Family Circle, has stayed with me mostly for the way Joe and Lily treat the slowest pieces.  While bluegrass is frequently characterized by lightning speed playing and technical virtuosity, listen to "Oh! My Mother," to hear how they lift up each note with both clarity and solid emotion.  Several times it sounds like Joe is on the verge of shedding tears.  There's no question how important family is to the Isaacs, even when the family circle continually suffers fate's breakage and has to somehow repair itself.