Ricky Skaggs,
Country Hits Bluegrass Style
(Skaggs Family, 2011)

Ricky Skaggs, guitarist and mandolinist, spent much of the 1970s as bluegrass' bright young hope. In the early 1980s he broke into the Nashville charts with a sound that was neither hard country nor country-pop but which brought refreshingly spare, ingenious arrangements into songs that weren't quite bluegrass either. Sometimes, in fact, Skaggs's melodic tenor and smart production were more noteworthy than the songs themselves, a few of which needed the Skaggs touch to render them interesting.

After the country hits stopped, Skaggs returned, more or less, to his bluegrass roots, issuing strong neo-traditional 'grass records while alternating them with pop and gospel CDs. On Country Hits Bluegrass Style he revisits the songs that both made him a prominent figure outside the bluegrass world and ushered in mainstream country's all-too-brief New Traditionalist movement (Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam and others followed). Before I heard the album, I had assumed that by "bluegrass style" Skaggs meant exactly that. It turns out, however, that pure acoustic bluegrass only occasionally pops up its head, most prominently in his killer reworking of the Bill Monroe chestnut "Uncle Pen" (a Skaggs hit in 1983). Elsewhere, electric guitars, piano, drums and even accordion are as much a part of the package as banjos, mandolins and fiddles. This is basically the sound, only modestly more bluegrass-shaped, that Skaggs practiced with such success in his commercial prime.

Those who were listening to country radio back then will recognize "Heartbroke" (Guy Clark), "Honey (Open That Door)" (Mel Tillis), "Highway 40 Blues" (Larry Cordle), "Don't Get Above Your Raising" (Flatt & Scruggs) and more. Personally, I wish he had included his understated reading of Stonewall Jackson's "Why I'm Walkin'," a neglected gem from a neglected hard-core honkytonker. The otherwise lighter-than-air "Country Boy" (which inexplicably required three writers) rises to guilty pleasure not because of its piffle-level sentiments but because of the lively jam that goes on around them. There is never any doubt that Skaggs is one exceptional musician with his own vision of how it should be done.

So, if it matters to you, Country Hits Bluegrass Style is more the former than the latter. Meanwhile, the fusion that Skaggs put together decades ago seems even now pretty much sui generis. It may not be deep, but it's always sweet.

music review by
Jerome Clark

27 August 2011

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