A number of years ago, I remember hearing this guy on Country radio that reminded me just a little bit of Bluegrass legend Bill Monroe; Ricky Skaggs was the fellows name. I’d always like Ricky’s music, and followed his career for a number of years. I got to know a little bit about him from album liner notes, interviews, and word of mouth from other musicians I knew that played around the clubs that I worked in. I found out that he used to play with Emmy Lou Harris, and I had always liked her musical offerings. I found out that he and the late Keith Whitley used to play together. And I found out that his career began with Bluegrass.
Riverbend festivalgoers gave a warm reception to Mr. Skaggs, and he returned the favor in kind. I’d never caught one of his concerts before, and I had heard a few stories about just how driving his music could be. Well, I was pleasantly surprised at just how much energy he and his band, Kentucky Thunder put into the show. Accompanied on some of his songs by Chattanooga’s renowned symphony orchestra, I was also surprised and pleased at just how well Ricky’s band meshed with the home team. Now that the introductions have been made let me digress just a little on Ricky Skaggs, and just how he approached his show last night.
Ricky gave a friendly hello and thank you to the orchestra, gave a short bio on his current state of affairs, and then immediately opened the show with the beautiful Bluegrass flavored, “Give Us Rain.” I’d never heard the song, and it was simply, well, it was simply beautiful. The harmonies, and anyone who keeps up with my reviews knows I’m a sucker for harmony, were impeccable, and most tasty. Yes, I know Bluegrass is known for such intricate harmonies, but I’ve heard my share of not so pleasant notes from some Bluegrass bands I’ve heard. I didn’t expect to hear anything bad at all, but I wasn’t expecting to hear the vocal beauty I did hear – sweet sounds to my ears. As Ricky pointed out, we’ve had a shortage of rain here in the South, and that shortage is not only physical, but in the American spirit as well. I believe the man stirred a fairly profound metaphor together with his observation, but the truth, as we all know, often hurts.
Fans of the late Harry Chapin got a special treat last night, because Ricky performed his cover of Chapin’s world famous song, “Cat’s In The Cradle.” Skaggs told another touching story about how he initially decided upon recording the song, so many years ago. It seems he and his son had been going through some of those rough times that so many of us seem to run into with those we love the most. He told of how he was walking through a store when he heard Chapin’s song, and how the song reached into him, and hit hard. Like all great songs, “Cradle” possesses that magic power over so many of us, to inflict pain or pleasure. In this case, the pain of hearing Chapin’s song about irreplaceable time with his own son, time lost to the random vicissitudes of life. Before launching into the song, along with the symphony’s excellent backing, Skaggs made another valid and important point, and one that I’ll take with me. He told the audience that one thing he had learned was that to our children, love is spelled T I M E; I believe he nailed it, again.
Skaggs and crew performed a number of Bluegrass oriented tunes, giving homage and credit where due (just another thing I’ve always appreciated about some performers). He mentioned a little about the history of Bluegrass music, and some of the instruments. He talked of how the music formed from a hodgepodge of various influences from Ireland, Scotland, and other distant lands. He told of the instruments such as the fiddle, mandolin, and banjo, and how they originated in such places as Italy and Africa. He storied about how all of these elements fused, and coalesced from these lands, and filtered though the early Appalachians, and finally made the way to the musical form that so many enjoy today. The band then performed a Scaggs original, “The Road To Spencer,” that showcased not only traditional Bluegrass instruments such as the fiddle and banjo, but also the accordion and, what I believe was, the penny whistle – splendid, indeed.
I doubt if Ricky’s show would have been complete if he had not reached into his Country music career and played a number of his better-known songs, many of them past hits for him. He kicked off with the first song I had remembered hearing from him, “Waiting For the Sun to Shine,” and preceded to take the band through songs that many in the audience apparently had fond memories of. My favorites of the evening included both “Highway Forty Blues” (just a plain, old, kick up your heels kind of song) and the Monroe classic, “Uncle Pen.”
Truth be known, I may never catch Ricky Skaggs at another show, but last night gave me a chance to hear a man’s music that will always hold down a special place in my musical memory.
Thank you, Mr. Skaggs!