- The Washington Times - Monday, December 20, 2004

Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder

Brand New Strings

Skaggs Family Records

Ricky Skaggs has come home to his roots in a big way. He was something of a mandolin prodigy and considered a bluegrass master by age 21. As a teen, he and Keith Whitley were playing for Ralph Stanley’s band. In his 20s he turned to the more lucrative field of country music and scored several chart-topping country hits. He also played for Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band and was a Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year in the 1980s.

By the end of the last century, though, Mr. Skaggs moved back to his roots. The sudden new interest in bluegrass and early American country music brought on by the soundtracks to “O Brother Where Art Thou?” and “Cold Mountain” in the past five years has fueled a bluegrass comeback for Mr. Skaggs as well. At 50, he’s quickly becoming one of the standard-bearers of the current “pop” bluegrass sound, on par with such artists as Alison Krauss, Chris Thile, Dan Tyminski and Jerry Douglas.

Mr. Skaggs’ 1997 “Bluegrass Rules” won the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Album of the Year award and a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album. His 1999 “Ancient Tones” also won a Best Bluegrass Album Grammy. He followed that with “Soldier of the Cross,” a gospel music release in 2000 (which also won a Grammy) and recorded tributes to his mentor Bill Monroe in 2000 and 2002.

However, his “History of the Future” (recorded in 2001 with Kentucky Thunder) received mixed reviews. And time will tell if his “Brand New Strings” is a worthy follow-up. It hit the No. 1 position on the Billboard bluegrass chart in November and earned a Grammy nomination for Best Bluegrass Album of 2004.

Half the songs of this latest Skaggs release have current country gospel themes. Some of the tunes come off as a bit maudlin. Others might pass muster as tear-jerkers on the pop country chart, but it’s doubtful if any will pass into the bluegrass lexicon as classic gospel. The type of faith and the emotions it evokes may be sincere, but don’t seem to translate to music very easily.

Mr. Skaggs fares better on the other half of the 13-track disc with an assortment of highly polished bluegrass songs. Highlights include his arrangement of an old-time melody, “Arkansas Traveler,” in the song “Sis’ Draper,” using the story line of a visiting aunt who plays a pretty mean fiddle. It’s pure entertainment. There are also the three smoking instrumentals that Mr. Skaggs wrote — “1st Corinthians 1:18,” “Appalachian Joy” and “Monroe Dancing” — and several adequate pop bluegrass tunes from other writers, such as the title track, written by Keith Sewell and Steve Leslie.

One of the challenges of bluegrass music is breaking new ground while remaining true to tradition. There are artists who don’t run the risk of producing mere pop country tunes with bluegrass instrumentation and background music. Fans of the genre are pretty discriminating and they know the difference.

Artists who manage to pull it off contribute mightily to the music form. They are torchbearers to the future, bringing new listeners to the music and keeping it alive for another generation.

Mr. Skaggs’ “Brand New Strings” earns points for trying. But in the end, it comes up short.

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