Ricky Skaggs,
Ancient Tones
(Skaggs Family, 1999)

Ricky Skaggs has become to bluegrass what Wynton Marsalis has become to jazz: both are superb musicians, both tend to repeat or recreate classics rather than attempting any true innovations in their chosen fields, and each man seems to consider himself the self-appointed savior of his chosen musical genre. As a result, both men tend toward tedium and predictability, the very things that keep Ancient Tones from being more than just another good bluegrass album.

Skaggs began very young in bluegrass, then went into straight country music, and has now returned to bluegrass, probably out of a love for it, but possibly also because of his declining career in the country music field. His first bluegrass album, Bluegrass Rules, put together a marvelous band only to have it play standard after standard from the pens of Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers and Earl Scruggs. It was a solid, straight-ahead, if brief (35 minutes) session of fine bluegrass, but hardly a pioneering effort. Critics and fans praised it highly, and made it an award-winner, but the fact remains that it was primarily a recreation of songs that previous artists had already claimed as their own.

The same is pretty much true of Skaggs' new effort, Ancient Tones, released on his own Skaggs Family label. The title comes from the observations that Bill Monroe, who Skaggs seems to have claimed as his spiritual father, made about bluegrass music being filled with ancient tones. Those tones can be heard in such songs as "Walls of Time," Skaggs' own "Connemara," "Coal Minin' Man," and "Little Bessie," but they are present in most bluegrass ballads, whoever sings or plays them.

Indeed, sometimes those ancient tones which Skaggs reaches for are far more easily heard in less commercial configurations than that which Skaggs puts together here. You'll hear more of those tones (and more purely intoned) in 16 bars of Dock Boggs or Grayson & Whittier or Bill Monroe's own late '40s band or, for that matter, in one of the duets that Skaggs did with Tony Rice on their nearly 20-year-old classic duet album than you will in Skaggs' new CD.

Not that there isn't a great deal of pleasure here: Skaggs' band Kentucky Thunder is tight and plays beautifully together, every solo is impeccably picked, and the vocal blends are smooth and harmonious. If you're a fan of traditional bluegrass, you'll find much to like, including the great banjo playing of Jim Mills, Bobby Hicks' marvelous fiddling, and Skaggs' own blistering mandolin, not to mention the glorious contributions from guests Jerry Douglas and fiddler supreme Stuart Duncan.

Still, the album is slightly disappointing because of its reliance on too many songs we've heard time and time again, and the few originals are so thoroughly embedded in that traditional vein that we feel we've heard them before as well. The final song, a more than eight minute long version of the old mountain ballad, "Little Bessie," only makes one yearn to hear such music sung by those who have those tones in their blood, such as Almeda Riddle's extraordinary recordings for Alan Lomax's Southern Journey series.

Ricky Skaggs is a very talented musician, and he's put together a band that is second to none. It's just a shame that so much talent has been put to so little consequence. For all the hoopla, this album could have easily been recorded by a dozen other top-notch bands. Next time around, I hope that Skaggs presents himself and Kentucky Thunder with more of a challenge. This band is capable of far more extraordinary things if they are only given the chance.

[ by Chet Williamson ]

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