Bruce Hornsby and Ricky Skaggs are big names in neo-traditional music. Skaggs, the bluegrass mandolin innovator, is regarded as a formative figure in that genre. Hornsby’s avuncular nature and easygoing virtuosity at the piano bench have ensured the continued growth of his stature twenty odd years after his big commercial hit, “The Way It Is”. Like Skaggs, Hornsby thrives on incorporating elements of the bluegrass, jazz, and pop genres into his distinctive brand of contemporary music.
While these two legendary figures are known individually for pushing the boundaries of these musical genres, Skaggs and Hornsby are also inveterate collaborators who revel in immediate and intuitive musical connections. Their new record, Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby, is the product of this sort of easygoing relationship. The album documents a couple of friends enjoying each other’s company as they collaborate on a variety of fresh originals, traditionals, re-interpretations of favorites from Hornsby’s catalogue, and the odd contemporary cover. Kentucky Thunder, Skaggs’ slick backing band, provides solid if unspectacular accompaniment throughout the proceedings. The result is a good-natured record, which is competently arranged and performed, but which ultimately suffers from a lack of outward originality and a touch too much polish on the sound production.
The new originals attest to these points. Hornsby’s “Gulf of Mexico Fishing Boat Blues” features stellar instrumental work but is held back by his rather trite narrative about a crook trying to go straight. Skaggs suffers a similar fate with the uninspired “Come On Out”, which boasts repetitive lyrics and instrumental work that is rendered unremarkable by its sheer smoothness. Hornsby fares better with the opener “The Dreaded Spoon”, a charming tale about his father’s penchant for stealing ice cream. Whimsical lines like “hide your cookies hide your cakes / What he giveth, away he takes / Keeps on scooping ’til your patience breaks” are a perfect match for the playfulness of his piano line. This material is well suited to the record’s easygoing nature, where smiles are tossed around but generic boundaries are not necessarily pushed.
Unfortunately, the musicians do not sustain this playful spirit. The record veers off into less interesting territory with Skaggs offering up a bland take on the traditional “Across the Rocky Mountain”. This track, much like its generic counterpart “The Hills of Mexico”, is well played but otherwise wholly unremarkable. One can’t help but wonder what it was that motivated Skaggs to select these tracks for the project, as his performances are not particularly inspired and Hornsby’s piano parts do not figure heavily in the performances.
Hornsby’s re-casting of his own hit “Mandolin Rain” in the minor key is more adventuresome, though not much more successful. While the key change lends a heightened sense of foreboding to the song, the added tension doesn’t really lead anywhere. Skaggs’ sterling mandolin line provides an effective counterpoint to the lead piano line, but the chorus can’t help but sound strained in this arrangement; the track would clearly have benefited from a more intense instrumental breakdown, which might have offered some much-needed catharsis after the suspenseful build-up.
The group’s re-interpretation of Hornsby’s “A Night on the Town” comes off better. This may be a cautionary tale, but it still lends itself to more of an up-tempo workout. Hornsby takes a decent solo, though he brings it back around just as it seems to be gathering momentum. In moments like these, the listener senses the curious lack of inspiration that persistently threatens to define this record. The fact that Hornsby’s vocals are strong, and the instrumental parts are precise and intricate, only leads one to wonder why these two legends and their crack backing band consistently turn away from opportunities to put this thing into musical overdrive.
If nothing else, shared vocals seem to invigorate these two. They trade verses on Hornsby’s “Crown of Jewels” and this extended track finds a rewarding groove to match their efforts. Unfortunately, this track moves into an all-too-earnest bluegrass treatment of Rick James’ “Superfreak”. Despite the enthusiastic vocals, this re-interpretation of this well-known song strikes a hollow note; it feels like a novelty ploy designed to attract new listeners to the project. Hornsby and Skaggs should have selected a less obvious song to re-cast as a bluegrass jam, and they should not have allowed this clichéd number to close out their record. This record deserved better than to finish on such a mundane note.
In the end, Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby lives up to its rather plain title but accomplishes no more than that. While this collaboration does not sully the reputations of these two legendary figures, it certainly does not add to their respective legacies. Dedicated fans of these musicians will find things to like on this platter, but casual listeners should instead seek out some of the stellar material in the extensive back catalogues of Skaggs and Hornsby.