Culled from three decades of albums, the songs on Best of the Sugar Hill Years are simply masterful.
Ricky Skaggs is one of those people who make the rest of us normal, non-mandolin-virtuoso folk feel hopelessly inadequate: he began his professional music career at the age of seventeen as a member of Ralph Stanley's Clinch Mountain Boys, then played in Emmylou Harris's Hot Band before becoming a solo star before the age of 30. Thirty-five years and umpteen albums later, he's one of bluegrass's elder statesmen, having recorded with the Who's Who of American music -- even Bruce Hornsby has fallen under Skaggs' bluegrass spell, collaborating on 2007's Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby -- and influencing countless mandolin pickers currently burning up stages around the world.
Unfortunately, for the past 20 or so years he's been pretty much ignored by the commercial country scene, despite having chalked up numerous radio hits in the 1980s and '90s, as well as being partly responsible for the neotraditionalist country movement during that same period. Before launching his own record label, Skaggs Family Records, Skaggs spent nearly three decades with keystone country label Sugar Hill. In fact, his band Boone Creek was responsible for Sugar Hill's first album, way back in 1978. The Americana Master Series is an effort by the label to focus on the numerous legends -- Doc Watson, Jerry Douglas, and Doyle Lawson are just a few of the powerhouses who've spent some time with Sugar Hill -- who have shaped American roots music and cemented Sugar Hill's position as the premier country/roots record company.
On Best of the Sugar Hill Years, Skaggs showcases the ties between old time, bluegrass, and gospel musics. Nearly all of the songs on this album are spiritual: some are traditional gospel ("Where the Soul of Man Never Dies", a wonderful duet from Skaggs' collaboration with guitarist Tony Rice), while others are American music standards, such as Bill Monroe's "Little Cabin Home on the Hill" and the Carter Family's "Bury Me Beneath the Weeping Willow". Skaggs's pure and soaring tenor is a perfect match for these songs, managing to take songs that are so associated with other performers and make them his own. His sweet vocals lack the grit and tenacity of Sara Carter's or Monroe's, but Skaggs's version of the high lonesome sound is pretty damn good all the same.
Like their spiritual counterparts, the non-gospel tracks on this record are masterful. "I'm Not Broke, But I'm Badly Bent" (from Bluegrass: The World's Greatest Show) is a bluegrass master class, featuring living legends J.D. Crowe, Tony Rice, and Jerry Douglas. Having four such legends performing together is simply bluegrass nirvana. Listen to it and try to keep a smile off your face: it's impossible. Skaggs enlists the vocals of his wife, bluegrass singer Sharon White, on several tracks, including Lester Flatt's "I'll Stay Around" and one of the best love songs ever written, Townes Van Zandt's "If I Needed You". Sure, "If I Needed You" has been recorded by just about everybody, but Skaggs and White's bare bones version is achingly beautiful, and probably the best version of the song since Van Zandt's original recording.
The one criticism of Best of the Sugar Hill Years is its length: at only 34 minutes, it's far too short. There are numerous other Skaggs tracks that deserve inclusion on this record; however, whether you're listening to this record as a bluegrass primer, or you're a diehard Ricky Skaggs fan, don't pass this one up. Kudos to Sugar Hill Records for finally giving Skaggs the recognition he deserves.