Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder,
Music to My Ears
(Skaggs Family, 2012)

Ricky Skaggs's sound is rooted in bluegrass. Unlike most bluegrass artists, however, he strays from the genre on occasion. For a few years in the 1980s, after conjuring up a unique fusion of bluegrass and country, he reigned as a major Nashville star. Music to My Ears recalls something of that, though most cuts are straightforward 'grass. Otherwise, nontraditional instruments such as piano, electric guitar, drums and more shape songs that sometimes feel as much pop as country. Surely the most extreme example is "Soldier's Son," written by Bee Gee Barry Gibb, with whom Skaggs shares a duet.

Even with their occasional detours into other genres, Skaggs and his band Kentucky Thunder are deservedly at the forefront of the current bluegrass scene. So, unsurprisingly, Music is an enjoyable album. I'd like it if for no other reason than that Skaggs and company have revived one of my favorite songs, the late banjo man Don Stover's "Things in Life." To say it's a rewrite of the Appalachian folksong "Look Up, Look Down That Lonesome Road" is only to observe the obvious, but not to account for its particular appeal. At once naive and profound, its simple lyrics express what happens and what matters in our time on Earth. Here's one verse:

I'd like to be a small part of life
With some few things to achieve
Just to know I've been a fruitless cause
Would give my poor heart grief.

Is there any human being who wouldn't recognize the sentiment? And could it be said better and more succinctly? Though filled out with other instruments, Skaggs's arrangement echoes Stover's -- Stover recorded it as the title song on a classic 1972 Rounder album -- in its use of clawhammer banjo. Skaggs must have sensed that a narrowly focused bluegrass treatment would dilute the song's power, and he's right.

No other cut is (or perhaps could be) quite so riveting. A couple of numbers are a tad sentimental for my taste. Over the years, too, I've heard Jimmy Driftwood's ballad "Tennessee Stud" a few dozen more times than necessary. Nonetheless, Skaggs's version is a solid one, and a tribute to the late Doc Watson that no one would begrudge. Everyone to his or her own choice, naturally, but for me, I'll take Music's traditional material over the country and pop stuff. Even so, there is never any denying that Skaggs is a fine singer and splendid picker and Kentucky Thunder is a first-rate band. Whatever your pleasures, downhome or otherwise, you're sure to find something here to brighten your moment.

music review by
Jerome Clark

8 June 2013

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