Artist-in-Residence: Ricky Skaggs: Bluegrass Rules

November 19, 2013

Ricky Skaggs looked back to his roots in his second and final concert as the 2013 artist-in-residence at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. As he always has, he showed how talented, committed musicians can keep reinventing and bringing new life to the foundational music they love.

In opening the show, Skaggs noted that he had devoted the previous night-his first artist-in-residence concert- to the country hits that made him a household name, and to his love of gospel and country music.
For his second show, Skaggs wanted to delve into his influences and the music introduced to him by his father, Hobert Skaggs, and by the founding figures of bluegrass who took him under their wing. “This is the music that shaped my life and made me who I am,” Skaggs said. “I want this night to be about the foundation for everything I do and love.”

In expert fashion, Skaggs laid out a night that swept from old Irish fiddle songs to the most modern instrumental takes on traditional tunes. To begin, he brought out the superlative Celtic duo of Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, whose fiddle tunes recalled the Scots-Irish influences that, after being transported to America by immigrants, provided a primary component of American fiddle music, Appalachian folk songs, and, ultimately, the commercial forms of country and bluegrass music.

In introducing Hayes and Cahill, Skaggs recalled his first visit to Ireland as a member of Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band. Invited to a casual picking session-a ceili-after a concert, he spoke of his amazement at hearing the roots of the music he loved in the “ancient tones” of the songs he heard played that night.

“I felt like I’d died and gone to eastern Kentucky,” Skaggs said, recognizing the familiar melodies passed down through the ages while also noticing how Irish musicians gathered around and shared their music in much the same way that his family and community had back home when he was growing up.

From there, Skaggs carefully illustrated how the immigrant music was transformed in the new country, one monumentally engaging step at a time.
Bringing out Del McCoury, a member of the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, Skaggs and his longtime friend revived a Monroe Brothers duet “Sinner You Better Get Ready,” bringing out all the foreboding dread of old-time religion with fiercely stirring harmonies.

From there, Skaggs drew on personal history. As he explained, through a fortuitous chain of circumstances the one-time child prodigy from Kentucky had a chance to perform with, and learn from, three legendary American music acts who set the groundwork for bluegrass music. Skaggs painstakingly detailed how each of these legends-Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, and Flatt & Scruggs-created something new and moved the ancient music forward, making it relevant to its time.

Making his history lesson come alive, Skaggs presented the music of his heroes with fierce precision and the perfect balance of respect and innovation. Although Skaggs dedicated the night to the music he grew up on, he also showed how that music has moved forward over the decades-an important progression to keeping the music relevant, and something he’s had a huge hand in helping keep alive.

McCoury stayed on stage to perform Monroe’s “Travelin’ Down This Lonesome Road,” with help from Kentucky Thunder, Skaggs’s talented road band. (Throughout the two nights, Kentucky Thunder played with crisp, spirited virtuosity.)

Skaggs next featured two songs from the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Grammy-winning album that gave traditional stringband music a popular boost. Introducing the Whites, which includes his wife, Sharon, Skaggs made it clear that the family group from Texas had been performing the Carter Family’s “Keep on the Sunny Side” long before it became a centerpiece of the O Brother album.

Skaggs brought out Alison Krauss for a Stanley Brothers throwback, the sentimental “A Vision of Mother.” Then Krauss joined Skaggs and the Whites for a breathtaking rendition of “Down to the River to Pray,” another O Brother standout. While Krauss has repeatedly performed the song with sensitivity and finesse over the years, this version-with Skaggs on guitar, Buck White on mandolin, and Paul Brewster, Eddie Faris, and Sharon and Cheryl White supplying additional harmonies-seemed to fill this song with even more emotion and power.

After these modern versions of age-old classics, Skaggs upped the ante by showing how traditional tunes can be transformed into modern music through the hands of musicians capable of improvisation and intricate ensemble play. Bringing out his recent touring partner, Bruce Hornsby, a rocker with jazz chops on the piano, the gathered players took songs nearly every stringband knows-“Darling Cory” and “Shady Grove”-and made them as fresh as a newly tilled garden through imaginative arrangements packed with spectacular musicianship.

Tying the music even more to the present, the gathered band gave the same treatment to one of Hornsby’s top pop hits, “The Way It Is,” showing the connection between music from the centuries with a song that might be heard anytime the radio is turned on.

In an appropriate encore, all the evening’s musicians crowded on stage for a round of older songs played with the shock of the new. Skaggs purposely built the jam-session medley around “Tennessee Wagoner,” which he said was the first song played on Nashville’s WSM radio, on what would become the Grand Ole Opry. The joy of spur-of-the-moment ensemble play showed on everyone’s face-as well as in the unplanned dance enacted by eighty-two-year-old Buck White. It was a perfect illustration of how classic music remains forever young.

Indeed, that was the point Skaggs made through both nights of his artist-in-residence concerts: traditional American music provides an endless canvas for those who translate it with skill, invention, and ecstatic pleasure.

“I’m having the best time in the world,” McCoury blurted out at one point, and everyone on stage and in the crowd nodded their heads in agreement.

Set List

  • Irish fiddle medley by Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill
  • All other songs featuring Ricky Skaggs:
  • “P. Joe’s Reel” / “Billy in the Lowground” (with Hayes and Cahill)
  • “Sinner You Better Get Ready” (with Del McCoury)
  • “Travelin’ Down This Lonesome Road” (with McCoury)
  • “Lonesome River”
  • “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (and Loud, Loud Music)”
  • “Bluegrass Breakdown”
  • Intermission
  • “Children Go Where I Send Thee” (with the Whites)
  • “Keep on the Sunny Side of Life” (with the Whites)
  • “A Vision of Mother” (with Alison Krauss)
  • “Down to the River to Pray” (with Krauss, Paul Brewster, Eddie Faris, and Sharon and Cheryl White)
  • “Darling Cory” (with Bruce Hornsby)
  • “The Way It Is” (with Hornsby)
  • “Shady Grove” (with Hornsby)
  • Encore: “Tennessee Wagoner” medley: “Dowd’s No. 9” (Hayes and Cahill); “50/50 Chance” (McCoury); “Storms Are on the Ocean” (Sharon and Cheryl White with Krauss); “Cluck Ol’ Hen” (Skaggs, Krauss, Hornsby); “Columbus Stockade Blues” (Hornsby); “Alabama Jubilee” (Hornsby and Buck White)

-Michael McCall