David Royko Psy.D
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 8, 2000
SKAGGS STILL AMONG THE BEST IN BLUEGRASS
By David Royko
A cynic could view Ricky Skaggs' return to bluegrass music as nothing more than a country star's attempt to rebuild his flagging career (as a few in the music industry have mumbled). But such cynics would be missing a few points that Skaggs' made Friday night at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
First, Skaggs has this music in his blood. A child prodigy and a professional touring musician with Ralph Stanley before he graduated high school, Skaggs' grassy pedigree is genuine thoroughbred.
Second, nobody looks to bluegrass as a ticket to a quick buck. Even if Skaggs operates well into the black, bluegrass is music played because one is driven to play it.
And third, of those driven to play bluegrass, Skaggs is among the best.
He attacked his mandolin with the same zeal he employed when preaching the music's value to the audience. His passion was contagious, even if the energy level was a bit below Skaggs' usual standards during Friday's early show.
Skaggs' vocals also were a wonder, his expressive tenor tender at the core, yet piercing in the best bluegrass tradition, like a laser wrapped in velvet. When combined with the voices of guitarists Paul Brewster and Daren Vincent, the harmonies were as perfect in execution as they were heavenly in effect.
Any band with such singing talent would be a force in any form of music, but take away their voices and this band could still thrive through their fingers. Banjoist/dobroist Jim Mills and guitarist Clay Hess are a couple of the best pickers in bluegrass.
And then there is Skaggs' violin section. Duo fiddling is one of the most difficult yet invigorating devices in bluegrass. With the 20-year-old Luke Bulla bowing beside the legendary Bobby Hicks for Bill Monroe's "Wheel Hoss," one heard how such music is meant to sound: fleet, razor sharp, precise, yet soulful, all at 90 miles per hour.
Since launching Kentucky Thunder in the mid-'90s, Skaggs has closed his shows with the instrumental, "Get Up John," and Friday was no exception. Before Skaggs, Monroe's apocalyptic 1950s recording of the tune was never equaled for its thrust and an almost frightening intensity. Skaggs not only approached that level of involvement, but he has turned the tune into a sort of bluegrass concerto grosso, complete with space for each soloist.
Through such respectful yet creative retooling, Skaggs manages to pay tribute to the music of his heroes while moving forward and keeping it fresh. He might not be the official caretaker of bluegrass music, but he is certainly one of the most important musicians of his generations performing it today.