Ricky Skaggs has known the Whites for most of his life, since meeting Sharon White in 1971. That encounter, when Skaggs was at the tender age of 17, began a lifelong association with the entire musical White family. With Skaggs’ later marriage to Sharon, his bond to the Whites became stronger than ever. Naturally, Skaggs and the Whites have worked together often over the years, some harmonies here, some backing there, but Salt of the Earth marks their first true collaboration.
Gospel music has always played an important role for both the Whites and for Skaggs, so it’s no surprise that Salt of the Earth is primarily a gospel album, and a comfortable one at that. Despite the presence of Skaggs’ high-powered bluegrass band, Kentucky Thunder, Salt of the Earth sounds like you’ve slipped into a country church, or onto a back porch where a family sits singing hymns. Granted, Skaggs and the Whites sing better than most, but Salt of the Earth conveys the feeling that even if everyone in the clan croaked like frogs, they’d still be singing. There’s little, if any, flash to be found here. Their rendition of staples like “Wings of a Dove” and “Blessed Assurance” couldn’t be more humble.
Skaggs and the Whites do kick up their heels on occasion, though. “Big Wheel” features spry violin and nimble honky-tonk piano, “Homesick for Heaven” recalls the days of classic country, and “Wreck on the Highway” adopts an easygoing bluegrass sway.
All of Salt of the Earth‘s tracks are covers, whether it be of hymns, folk songs, or gospel moments from country’s past. The album contains two notable surprises, though. Opener “Love Will be Enough”, written by Paul Overstreet and Janis Ian, tells the tale of young lovers from different sides of the tracks, but does so from a gentle Christian perspective. Stuart Hamblen’s “This Old House” (made famous by Rosemary Clooney) keeps its bounce courtesy of Buck White’s deep vocals and honky-tonk piano, but in the context of Salt of the Earth, it really lets its spiritual center shine.
The album ends as a tribute to Pat White, who passed away in 2002. “Blessed Assurance” and “The Solid Rock”, two of gospel music’s most venerable hymns, find Skaggs and the Whites getting down to basics, relying only on their harmonies and the simplest of instrumentation.
Both Skaggs and the Whites have had successful careers in both country and bluegrass, but on Salt of the Earth, they return to the music that’s been with them all of their lives. As a listener you get the sense that the microphones and recording equipment were incidental and that this is the kind of singing Skaggs and the Whites probably do all the time. At the very least, you get the sense that when they finally got a chance to work together on a full-scale project like this, it was an easy decision to go back to what they probably know the best, and what they’ve probably been doing the longest.