Although "Sizeless" would be a more fitting name for a man picking on one of the world's smallest stringed instruments, Herschel Sizemore didn't get to pick out either of his names, like most of us. When he was eight years old, his parents took him to see Bill Monroe perform at the Grand Ole Opry, and Sizemore has recalled in interviews "that was it!" He had no interest other than bluegrass and mandolin after that. Perhaps starting so young was what gave Sizemore the edge over many of his mandolin playing peers in terms of coming up with their own styles. The mandolin playing of Bill Monroe so totally dominated the bluegrass world that it took a rare talent to come up with an alternative to that playing style. And that man, as the mandolin historians like to point out, was Herschel Sizemore. The mandolinist's career consists of two sections. In the first 30 years of his professional career he worked diligently and without stop in a series of different bands, many of them considered classic bluegrass outfits. Then he took a break from musical activity, returning for phase two in the early '90s, his career then dominated with a solid attempt to establish himself as a bandleader and present his own compositions. He formed the Herschel Sizemore Band in 1995 and has since released two compact discs under his own name.
Sizemore joined the Dixie Gentlemen in 1957 and played in that group for the next eight years. Then he was under the dynamic power of bluegrass bandleader Jimmy Martin until 1968. The following year he helped form a new group in which he would really polish his playing abilities, the Shenendoah Cut-Ups. It was "cut-up" as in a musical cutting contest, not some kind of musical comedy sketch. In this band Sizemore was matching solos with fiddler Tater Tate and flatpicker Wesley Golding, no slouches at all. He began to really dig in, and the impression was that he would find a new note higher up the register than the one before each time he played a solo. Indeed, his playing in the upper realms of his fretboard sometimes brings forth comparisons to church bells ringing. This, combined with the old-time country dance listeners many fans claimed to hear lurking beneath the syncopation of any given part of a solo, meant that Sizemore was covering just about all the bases in the Appalachian musical game. He played in Country Grass from 1974-1976 and from 1978-1979 was a member of the Del McCroury band the Dixie Pals, recording some of his most heartfelt solos from his first period. Following a brief stint with the Boys From Shiloh in 1986, there was a gap in Sizemore's musical activity. He simply dropped out of the picture.
But he returned five years later with the Bluegrass Cardinals, and it turned out to be more than just a new beginning for him. A wonderful sense of maturity began to ring through even stronger in his playing, and this was combined with the sincere gratitude with which the bluegrass audience welcomed his return to the scene, and the subsequent strong recordings as a leader. Furthermore, Sizemore used his solo recording efforts to put forth his work as a composer, beginning with the eight new tunes he showcased on the 1993 Back in Business album for the Hog Holler label. Fellow pickers picked right up on Sizemore's talent as a composer and several of his tunes have been recorded by others. His most famous composition is the instrumental "Rebecca," which has even been covered by the Czech/American bluegrass band Spruce Pine. "Lee's Reel was recorded by fellow mandolinists Alan Bibey and John McGann. Back in Business was chosen as the International Bluegrass Music Association's instrumental album of the year. The AuvTab company has published a book of transcriptions of Sizemore's tunes and mandolin solos. He frequently conducts workshops for mandolin players in the context of festival appearances. ~ Eugene Chadbourne