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Ricky Skaggs

Solo: Songs My Dad Loved

(Skaggs Family; US: 15 Sep 2009; UK: 28 Sep 2009)

The title says it all. You probably couldn’t find an album more heartfelt or more homespun than this one. On his last record, the well-received Honoring the Fathers of Bluegrass, Ricky Skaggs paid tribute to his eminent musical mentors, including the artists with whom he collaborated as a young music prodigy in the 1960s (Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs). On this release Skaggs honours his biological patriarch, Hobert Skaggs, the man who first introduced him to bluegrass music and encouraged the young Skaggs on the mandolin. “Some of these songs were my very first memories of music, of hearing my dad sing,” Skaggs has said. “If I could’ve gotten my dad into the studio, this is how I would’ve wanted him to sound—kind of Iron & Wine meets Ralph Stanley.” The result is a fine, intimate companion piece to his previous album.


Following Bill Monroe’s famous edict—“Keep it pure, you know”—Skaggs opts for a particularly spare and stripped-down approach to this album, contributing all vocals and playing all instruments himself. But there’s nothing solipsistic about the exercise. Rather, this is a warm and open-hearted record that, in the best sense, could have been made 60 years ago. The choice of material is solid. The Monroe Brothers’ “What Is a Home Without Love” and “Sinner, You Better Get Ready” sit happily beside Roy Acuff’s “Branded Wherever I Go” and the hymn “God Holds the Future in His Hands”. Well-placed instrumentals “Colonel Prentiss”, “Calloway”, and the Skaggs original “Pickin’ in Caroline” showcase Skaggs’s fiddle and clawhammer banjo work, as does a dynamic “Little Maggie”. Always a compelling singer, Skaggs is in strong, seemingly effortless voice, and harmonises with himself effectively throughout; the absence of other players and vocalists is never felt as a lack on this album.


Skaggs understands that the best country music is not a wallow in despair but a celebration of the possibility of transcendence, and his most effective performances here are on those gospel songs which speak most directly to that promise. His versions of “City That Lies Foursquare”, “Green Pastures in the Sky”, and “This World Is Not My Home” are particularly moving, while a lively reading of “I Had But 50 Cents” (about the dangers of taking out a gluttonous date) lightens the mood. Ever modest, Skaggs has stated that “if this [record] sells 25 copies to the family, that’d be fine with me”. Well, it’s likely to sell a few more copies than that. No alarms and no surprises here, just straight-up sentiment, lovely songs, and excellent musicianship.

Rating:

Alex Ramon lives in London, UK, and teaches English literature and film at Kingston University and the University of Reading. He holds a PhD in English and is the author of the book Liminal Spaces: The Double Art of Carol Shields (2008). In addition to writing for PopMatters, Wears The Trousers and The Public Reviews, he's been known to blog here: http://boycottingtrends.blogspot.com/. And to tweet @BoycottTrends.


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