When Ricky Skaggs started to become popular in Nashville more than two decades ago, he was seen as the newcomer of country music. And while he was certainly popular in the format, it wasn’t the genre that gave him the greatest satisfaction. In the last decade or so, Skaggs has made the adjustment from country to his staple of bluegrass slowly but surely. Perhaps his career came full circle in some respects during the summer of 2000 as he opened up arena shows for bluegrass-cum-country-cum-bluegrass darlings Dixie Chicks. Now well entrenched and still picking up Grammys, Skaggs and his legendary backing band Kentucky Thunder have recorded a small but mighty sample of how powerful this “lean in” (to the microphone) music can be.
Recorded over two nights in South Carolina, Skaggs wastes little time with introductions and dives head, er, mandolin first with “Black Eyed Suzie”, a traditional tune arranged by Skaggs and featuring some brief harmonies and manic banjo plucking courtesy of Jim Mills. And from there, well, the rest of the album’s tempo is pretty much set. The audience gets into nearly as quickly, adding handclaps on “How Mountain Girls Can Love”. The track sounds like it might have a few overdubs on it, particularly during the bridge, but it still has a great flow to it. Perhaps the only annoyance with some of the tracks is how the two nights are obviously mixed and melded into each other, not giving off a sound of concert continuity one show would. Nonetheless, “On a Lonesome Night” is a slower and melodic trip back in time.
“I named this after my first daughter, I wanted to call her Amanda Lynn,” Skaggs quips with the pun intended prior to “Amanda Jewell”. Here most of Kentucky Thunder showcase their wares with brief but nimble solo spots including the legendary fiddler Bobby Hicks. Another aspect that makes this album work is that there’s a definite spontaneity to the tracks. Over half have never been recorded previously by Skaggs, so they still possess that fresh creative spark older songs tend to lack. One perfect example is Skaggs scanning the lyrics to “A Simple Life”, a Harley Allen tune he started playing ten days prior to the concerts. And it’s one by far one of the album’s early highlights.
The middle portion of the album has a few weaker tracks, including the Celtic overtones on “Goin’ to the Ceili”, a mid-tempo instrumental resembling country instrumentalist Mark O’Connor in places. “The Old Home Place” makes use of Skaggs and his vocal prowess for such heartfelt, “mountain music” songs. “Crossville”, the songs Skaggs said fell from the sky, relies more on its tempo and groove than on its energy. It’s a temporary shift away from speed or death bluegrass. “Somewhere Nice Forever”, despite including “leukemia” in its lyrics, is one of the heartfelt songs among the 15 presented. Skaggs fumbles for words here as it’s dedicated to both his deceased mother and mother-in-law. But the tune takes an unforeseen and surprising turn halfway through.
Of course, Skaggs wouldn’t be doing what he continues to do without his mentor Bill Monroe. Having been a long-standing apprentice supporting Monroe in his early years, Skaggs pays tribute to him with the first of two covers, the rousing “Uncle Pen”. After performing Harry Chapin’s “Cats in the Cradle”, Skaggs ends the album with a marathon and jaw-dropping rendition of “Get Up John”. The two minutes plus most bluegrass songs clock in at is just a primer here, for the song just hits it stride by this time. Six minutes in, they haven’t lost a step although Skaggs takes it down for a moment with a mandolin solo. It’s one of the more amazing tracks you’ll hear simply for its duration and frenetic style. As my mother would probably say in adoration, “Play it, you bastards!” Play it indeed.