One Camp Street
Cambridge, MA 02401
A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by Mark O'Donnell
"Country Rocks...BLUEGRASS RULES!" Thus saith J.D. Sumner (famed bluegrass/Nashville drummer) as he introduces the first bluegrass album in twelve years by multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire Ricky Skaggs. It has been so long since Skaggs has recorded those high lonesome sounds that many will only know him as an erstwhile country star (and dismiss him as such). Yes, many will have forgotten that Ricky started out as a 16-year-old phenom in country-legend Ralph Stanley's Band, some 20 years ago. Now after stints in Emmylou's Hot Band and many years as a legit country star in his own right, he has released his first record for his own family label. Skaggs gives ample reason to listen up and demonstrate handily in the bargain that, indeed, Bluegrass Rules!
The album serves as something of a tribute to the men who paved the way for Skaggs many years before. The names and many of the songs are fairly predictable--Bill Monroe, Ralph and Carter Stanley, Earl Scruggs--what is not foretold is the depth of feeling and energy that Ricky invests in each of these tunes giving each new life, thereby treating them as his own. The classics are well represented and well presented--Get Up John and Rawhide by Monroe, Little Maggie and Ridin' That Midnight Train by Ralph and Carter Stanley respectively--one would think that these have been recorded-to-death and that the originals would be hard to beat. On Skaggs' album, while the feeling of the original is left intact, the performance enhances the experience. You really have to hear Skaggs' vocal reach on an old chestnut like Rank Stranger to know that you are in the presence of a guy who knows of what he sings. Listen to Scruggs' Somehow Tonight and you know that Skaggs loves what he is doing. Skaggs wrote some of his own material for the album as well. For example, his ode to his daughter Amanda Jewell may just be a contribution to the bluegrass canon that one of these days may be recorded for a tribute to Skaggs himself.
If you have seen him on Monday Night Concerts, you know that Skaggs plays a bit of everything: guitar, fiddle, and a whole lot of mandolin. But Skaggs is not alone, however. From the tight harmonies contributed by Paul Brewster and Dennis Parker (which will make your hair stand on end) to some of the tastiest (and fastest) lead guitar you have ever heard by Bryan Sutton, Kentucky Thunder is as fine a band as ever graced a stage at the Ryman. The ubiquitous Jerry Douglas adds his touch to The Drunken Driver, whereas fiddler Stuart Duncan joins in on several songs, including a fiddle duel with KT's Bobby Hicks on Rawhide.
While the cover and liner photos give one the sense of an old album rediscovered, Bluegrass Rules! is a clarion call to Ricky's new fans, telling them that there is a whole lot of life in bluegrass and that if you want to know where he gets his kicks, there are some mighty big hints given here. The recording is, if one dare apply this word to bluegrass without offense, pristine. You hear it all. Though there is a lot of music packed in here, a complaint would be that there is only 35 minutes of music on the disc. Having seen Skaggs and KT in March in a tremendous two-hour show in Durham, North Carolina, I know there is a lot more where this came from. Let's hope that it is not another twelve years before we hear Ricky yell, as he does with gusto at the end of the last track of this album, Well Glory. He means it.
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Edited by David Schultz