The fact that Ricky Skaggs has cut another bluegrass album is about as thrilling as Michael Jordan’s Third Coming to the NBA. We’re left wondering, “why?” Indeed, Ricky and Michael, why bother? Your best days are behind you both. What else can Jordan do that he hasn’t already done? Similarly, Ricky Skaggs’ newest record has as much freshness as its album cover—another close-up mug of the artist himself. Wow.
For the uninitiated, Ricky Skaggs carries one of the greatest pedigrees—and burdens—in the broad category of country music. He was born and raised in Kentucky and was, along with the late Keith Whitley, a member of Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys. Early on, he distinguished himself as a torchbearer of the acerbic central Appalachian vocal form inspired by Old Regular Baptist singing. (For the seeker interested in the most haunting examples of authentic Appalachia, try out Roscoe Holcomb’s The High Lonesome Sound and the Indian Bottom Association’s Songs of the Old Regular Baptists, both available from Smithsonian Folkways.) When Skaggs decided to go mainstream Nashville country in the early ‘80s, it was a source of grief for a faithful few in the hills and hollers of home. Skaggs typified a common and disturbing trend among Appalachian youth—a readiness to forsake the old sounds in favor of the modern vibes emanating from country and/or rock radio. It represented a general (and unnecessary) inferiority complex that many hill people share about their culture. Fearing they will be perceived as backward and uneducated, many give up the generational traditions. This explains why the old-timers put on their Sunday best to pose for the old, grainy family portraits.
But the time came when Ricky Skaggs’ conscience began to bother him about the wayward musical track he had taken. In the early ‘90s Skaggs jumped on board the swelling bluegrass revival wave, charging himself with the mission of introducing a new generation of listeners to the merits of the idiom. Several of Skaggs’ more traditional efforts of late have been quite good. But having ventured to Nashville’s Babylon of Sound, Skaggs brings back with him a certain discernible degree of defilement he can’t cleanse himself of. The music of History of the Future is just too crisp, too crystalline to inspire wind-blown loneliness of a bald ridge-top. Worse, it presents the wrong model of bluegrass to the neophyte. When Skaggs’ and company rip through their rendition of the tired standard “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms”, it sounds like a band of hired professionals performing at an amusement park. At best, it’s background noise; there’s nothing that draws the listener in. Returning for a moment to Roscoe Holcomb, his music was like a burning bush. It was harsh, disturbing, even aggravating, but it drew the listener’s notice, rattling the conscience and stirring emotions.
History of the Future includes a drum-driven nod to Celtic music with “Road to Spencer”. Having researched the roots of bluegrass music exhaustively, I can report that the alleged Celtic link to the genre is fanciful, a romantic will o’ the wisp that cannot be substantiated. The antecedents of bluegrass are hillbilly old-time, country blues, and jazz. In fact, it should not be surprising that bluegrass and bop developed at precisely the same time, a simultaneous response to fast times ushered by the dawn of the atomic age. Bluegrass has more in common with Charlie Parker than the Chieftains (in fact, Bird actually kept a few bluegrass 78s on his jukebox). Shame on Ricky Skaggs for succumbing to this popular novelty. Besides, drums are illegal in bluegrass music anyway.
Ricky Skaggs is a talented singer and musician who made his mark on bluegrass music years ago with his venerable mentor. His personal revival within the genre, however, does little to instruct or inspire the listener in the virtues of Americana. Having gone the way of The Osborne Brothers and Jim & Jesse McReynolds, Skaggs, with his History of the Future, merely appeals to popular stereotypes.