Multi-instrumentalist Ricky Skaggs has certainly had one of the most diverse and dramatic careers in modern bluegrass music. As a teen in the early '70s, he landed a spot in Ralph Stanley's newly-reformed Clinch Mountain Boys, and from there moved on to become one of the mainstays of the then-booming progressive bluegrass and neotraditionalist movements. His entry into the world of commercial country music came when he joined the Emmylou Harris Hot Band, where he contributed solid fiddle and mandolin work, as well as some choice harmony vocals and a sweet bluegrass sensibility. From the Hot Band, Skaggs went on to lead his own country band, reintroducing the old-fashioned, honey-toned "heart song" back into the Top 40 mainstream. In the late 1990s, after bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe passed away, Skaggs reentered the acoustic music fold, forming the Kentucky Thunder band, and starting his own independent label to support the old-fashioned music he grew up on. Here's also become a leading exponent of Christian gospel bluegrass, increasingly interjecting his born-again beliefs into his work, and making it a central part of his art. Here's a quick look at his early career, before he became a country star...
Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys "Sing Michigan Bluegrass" (Jessup, 1971) (LP)
Although there wasn't anything particularly "Michigan" about the songs themselves, you sure can't fault the music! This early '70s lineup of the reconstituted Clinch Mountain Boys featured vocalist Roy Lee Centers (a dead ringer for Carter Stanley) as well as young'uns Keith Whitley and our hero, Ricky Skaggs, who plays guitar, fiddle and mandolin throughout. These early indie recordings have recently been reissued on the Varese Sarabande label's Echoes Of The Stanley Brothers CD, along with material from their second Jessup LP, reviewed below.
Ralph Stanley "Cry From The Cross" (Rebel, 1971)
This album also features the Skaggs/Keith lads on fiddle and guitar. An all-gospel effort that showcases the band's fine instrumental prowess and high, keening harmonies.
Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys "Sing Gospel Echoes Of The Stanley Brothers" (Jessup, 1973)
More fine gospel material, recorded by the early '70s lineup of the Clinch Mountain Boys, featuring Centers, Whitley and Skaggs, and the rest of this super-talented crew. These early indie recordings have recently been reissued on the Varese Sarabande label's Echoes Of The Stanley Brothers CD, along with material from the first Jessup album (reviewed above), which was recorded at the same time, back in '71, but was released a couple of years later. Top-flight stuff, of course... Recommended!
Ricky Skaggs & Keith Whitley "Second Generation" (Rebel, 1971/1990)
These early '70s recordings capture two young members of Ralph Stanley's Clinch Mountain Boys just as they were about to go out on their own as vanguard members of the newgrass generation. Both Whitley and Skaggs cut new roads in the '70s country renaissance, and in the next decade each also successfully moved into the world of commercial Top 40 Country. But here they are, young and earnest as can be, singing pure, sweet bluegrass and playing with a magical melodic grace. This album was originally a modest release, not entirely off the radar, and a welcome surprise for the bluegrass faithful, though not a blockbuster hit by a long shot. Now, decades later, it's a wonderful document of two master musicians in their early years. Plus, it's just enchanting -- great music performed with real feeling. Thank goodness Rebel dusted this one off for modern listeners to check out again... it's highly recommended!
Ralph Stanley "Classic Stanley" (Freeland, 1998)
A 2-CD live set with performances from the early, featuring teenaged Ricky Skaggs and young Keith Whitley at the center of Stanley's revitalized Clinch Mountain Boys...
Country Gentlemen "The Country Gentlemen" (Vanguard, 1973)
Ricky Skaggs, fresh out of the Ralph Stanley band, joined a short-lived, but high-power lineup of Charlie Waller's venerable Country Gentlemen. This version of the band also included Doyle Lawson and Bill Emerson, and served as a springboard for Skaggs into the progressive bluegrass world.
J.D. Crowe And The New South "J.D. Crowe And The New South" (Rounder, 1975)
The fab Rounder debut of the ultra-talented ensemble led by banjo plunker J.D. Crowe, a former member of Jimmy Martin's bluegrass band. Ricky Skaggs was on board for this crucial early album, along with dobro whiz Jerry Douglas and fiddler Bobby Sloane, all members in good standing of the "usual suspects" crew of the future bluegrass mafia. Tony Rice sings almost all the lead vocals, working out the smooth, smoky style that would crystallize on solo albums such as Manzanita and Tony Rice Sings Bluegrass. If you listen closely, there are a few rough edges here, particularly in the sometimes-stiff rhythm, but mostly this album is just a delight. Great song selection, particularly the album's opener, "Old Home Place," which is one of my favorite tunes of the decade, some nice gospel stuff, and a pair of Gordon Lightfoot covers, one of Rice's great specialties. An early Rounder classic, and one that still stands up today!
Boone Creek "One Way Track" (Sugar Hill, 1977)
Dig those '70s aviator glasses and that shaggy, shoulder-length hair! Banjo picker Terry Baucom, dobro whiz Jerry Douglas and future country star Ricky Skaggs join on this near-perfect, traditionally-oriented newgrass album. The picking is magnificent, the group singing is warm and impasssioned, the choice of material is rich in history and harmony and shows the group's mastery of and devotion to old-school classics, particularly on several catchy old gospel tunes. The album falls apart just a little at the end, when a few newly-added live performances show the band's more raggedy side -- a jazzy instrumental jam, and a couple of harmony tunes with notably rough edges -- but on the whole, this is a very impressive and fun album, one of the best ever from this late 1970s scene. Of a piece with album's like Tony Rice's Manzanita, J.D. Crowe's My Home Ain't In The Hall of Fame, or the fab Bluegrass Album Band albums of the early '80s. Highly recommended!
Emmylou Harris "Luxury Liner" (Warner, 1977)
One of the finest albums of Emmylou's career, with Rick Skaggs sitting in as a member of her Hot Band. I loved this record as a teenager -- over the years I've reluctantly come to admit it's a bit of a guilty pleasure. This is the so-called "Happy Sack" sound at its apex: lush arrangements which capture the melodic simplicity of the best country music, while skillfully sculpting it into a multi-layered production style which maximizes the input of each and every musician. And it really is a fabulous ensemble, probably Emmylou's best band ever. Glenn Hardin, Emory Gordy and drummer John Ware hold down the rhythmic end, while the flashy guitar whiz Albert Lee steps in to fill James Burton's shoes, and a slew of other super-talented country loyalists also chime in, including Ricky Skaggs and Rodney Crowell. Albert Lee struts his stuff on the title track with a dazzling, multi-tracked guitar lead, and goes on to hold up his end for the rest of the album -- flashy, but soulful. Great song selection, perfect production, and a nice group-effort vibe throughout. I guess it's Emmylou's swooping vocals that make my love of this album a little embarrassing, but hey, it works for me. Highly recommended -- you should own the album itself, and not reply on best-of collections to find these songs.
Emmylou Harris & The Hot Band "Live In 1978" (2012)
Live stuff from yesteryear... It's the Emmylou Harris Hot Band in its prime, with Ricky Skaggs taking a prominent role on fiddle, mandolin and vocals. There are also a lot of gospel songs in the setlists, reflecting both his and Emmylou's interest in mountain music and traditional twang. These concerts took place around the time that Blue Kentucky Girl came out, but also foreshadow the sweet bluegrass collaborations of the Roses In the Snow album. Nice stuff!
Ricky Skaggs "Sweet Temptation" (Sugar Hill, 1979)
Beautiful! Probably my favorite of Ricky's albums!! A pure delight for fans of melodically-oriented, poppy bluegrass. Skaggs dips back into traditional sources, but also takes his cues from pop-conscious performers such as Merle Travis (who provided the title track) and Jimmy Martin, who brought a bluesy country vibe to his work that is clearly echoed on here. This is a really enjoyable album, and lots of fun to sing along with.
Emmylou Harris "Roses In the Snow" (Warner, 1980)
Emmylou started out the '80s with a bang, on this big, beautiful all-bluegrass album, featuring invaluable assistance from Grisman Quintet alumnus Tony Rice on guitar, along with Jerry Douglas on dobro and Bryan Bowers' soulful autoharp strumming. The two big radio hits -- "Wayfaring Stranger" and Paul Simon's "The Boxer" -- are the least of this album's charms. What's really great are the bouncy title track, a perky cover of "I'll Go Stepping Too", a plaintive version of the Louvin Brothers "You're Learning" and her spooky gospel duets with Willie Nelson ("Green Pastures") and Ricky Skaggs ("The Darkest Hour"). Right after this album came out, Skaggs started his own solo career as a Top Forty country traditionalist, with his contributions here as a sweet, welcome glimpse of things to come. From start to finish, this is a very fun, very listenable album... Highly recommended! (The 2002 re-release features a couple of non-bluegrass bonus tracks -- a fine cover of a Hank Williams tune, with Julie Miller singing harmony, and a Celtic-flavored folk tune written by Brian Ahearn's sister Nancy.)
Ricky Skaggs & Tony Rice "Skaggs & Rice" (Sugar Hill, 1980)
Sort of a mountain music dream team album, pairing these two top-flight newgrassers together at the height of their powers. Skaggs was just about to leave Emmylou Harris' Hot Band in search of Top 40 glory of his own; guitarist Tony Rice was being brought on board for Emmylou's all-star bluegrass extravaganza, Roses In The Snow, and heck, here they were just a couple of pals with nothing better to do than sit right down and record one of the best bluegrass albums of the decade. This is a tribute to the country music "brother acts" of the 1920s and '30s, groups such as Charlie and Bill Monroe, The Blue Sky Boys, and their pop-oriented heirs, The Louvin Brothers, who brought the art of close harmony singing to its apex. Rice and Skaggs get the mood just right, pearling off perfect versions of these perfect songs, but singing just high enough and with the right amount of vocal and spiritual straining to nail the old-timey feel right on the head. This is a beautiful album, which flirts with the over-perfection of the newgrass school, but manages to keep it real. My only complaint is that when the label reissued it in the '90s, they replaced the original graphics -- a facsimile of an old-time country music poster -- with artwork that is much more modern and bland. Otherwise, this is ace bunny killer.
Hick Music Index
Top photo by Erick Anderson, courtesy of Skaggs Family Records.
Top photo by Erick Anderson, courtesy of Skaggs Family Records.