[12 August 2011]
Ricky Skaggs’ turn as a bluegrass musician has been well documented. He was only six years old when he played mandolin on stage with Bill Monroe and a year later he was on television picking with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Since then he’s been a member of Ralph Stanley’s Cinch Mountain Boys, J.D. Crowe’s New South, and Emmylou Harris’ Hot band.
During the ‘80s he broke through as a country artist, even winning the Country Music Award’s Entertainer of the Year in 1985, but since the early ‘90s the stringed instrument maestro Skaggs has focused his musical energies on bluegrass, winning eight Instrumental Group of the Year awards (with has band, Kentucky Thunder) from the International Bluegrass Music Awards and winning 11 Grammy Awards in various categories.
So the concept of Skaggs re-performing his country hits from the ‘80s in a bluegrass style seems like a good idea. Ten of the 14 tracks on the recent album were No. 1 on the Country charts and includes such familiar titles as “Country Boy”, “Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’”, “Heartbroke” and “He Was On to Something (So He Made You)”. However while the song selection is fine, and Skaggs is still one of the best mandolin and bluegrass instrument players alive, there is something tired about this record.
It’s still a good record, but it should be a great record. Maybe it’s the fact that Skaggs is overly familiar with the material and could probably perform the songs in his sleep. Or maybe its that t he record’s production seems to discourage show-off moments. But there is a pedestrian vibe to the whole thing. For example, Skaggs does a bluegrass arrangement of a country hit he made playing in a bluegrass style: Bill Monroe’s classic “Uncle Pen”. This is one of the most upbeat and recognizable of bluegrass songs. No doubt Skaggs could shred this song with energetic picking and wail the mellifluous lyrics. But instead, the new version sounds indistinguishable from any good local bluegrass band playing an outdoor festival. It’s almost as if Skaggs is afraid to sound too good, as if the song is somehow more authentic if played and sung unexceptionally. Nothing could be further than the truth.
Bluegrass music is performed collaboratively. The best bands share one microphone and take turns playing and singing harmoniously. But the excitement comes from the fact that each person tries to top the one before. Sure, group members make sure to show their leader in the best light, but they do this by spurring the person on not by playing at a lower level.
The slow tunes on this disc are among the best ones as a result. Skaggs does a sweet version of the melancholy love song, “I Don’t Care”. However, this is one of the least bluegrass-y cuts on the albums. Some of the faster numbers do succeed, such as “Country Boy”. Still, the older country version is better. Making it a bluegrass song allows more pickin’ but it takes away from the duality of a city dweller dealing with his rural roots.
Fans already familiar with Skaggs won’t find anything exciting here, and newbies would be wise to search elsewhere for better Skaggs discs. While Country Hits: Bluegrass Style may be pleasant music, bluegrass is not meant to be easy listening fodder.