Review: New CD-Country Hits Bluegrass Style by Ricky Skaggs
It’s hard to believe today that there was once a time when through the waves of mainstream country radio an artist as pure, gifted and true to his roots as Ricky Skaggs could be heard as a rule rather than an exception. Arguably, he could be considered the leader of a short renaissance of real country music referred to as ‘New Traditionalism’. It was born in response to the Urban Cowboy trend of the early 80’s that trivialized country music into a disco like fad. Ricky Skaggs’ solo debut was a welcome return to authenticity and even caused Chet Atkins to say Ricky Skaggs singlehandedly saved country music. While this may be hyperbole, it is true he helped to restore country music to its roots during the often unfocused country music of the 80’s.
During the years between 1981 to 1989 he charted 11 #1 songs on the U.S. country charts. He earned several well-deserved Grammys and Country Music Association Awards including Entertainer of the Year in 1987. His success helped to open the door for other like-minded roots-based country artists like Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen’s Desert Rose Band, Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakum and Rosanne Cash. There really was a time when mainstream country playlists included such artists. But, If he did save mainstream country music from the mediocrity of his day, 1992’s release of the smash hit “Achy Breaky Heart” by Billy Ray Cyrus, returned it to the dismal commerciall traps of times past. By 1997, with charted singles behind him, Ricky heard the higher calling of his bluegrass roots and returned to a career which has since strengthened his legacy and confirmed his standing as a pioneer of the Americana music of today.
This new CD, Country Hits Bluegrass Style allows the artist and his audience to return to the days of those New Traditionalist hits with a warmer acoustic soul, less intent on commercial success and more focused on the heart of the songs. If his early recordings of these great songs brought us to the bright lights of Nashville, Country Hits Bluegrass Style invites to an afternoon barbeque in the heartland. Opening with Guy Clark’s “Heartbroke,” reminds us how Ricky Skaggs was able to bring a fine songwriter out into the light of day with such a fast-paced lyrical and bouncy appealing arrangement of a song that sings with folk, rock and Texas-swing. Ricky’s hit version of this fully realizes the opportunities mined by Guy Clark. Looking at the writer’s credit for this series of ’80’s hits is like reading a list of some of the great country songwriters and musicians of the last 50 years including Mel Tillis’ “Honey Don’t You Open That Door,” Albert Lee’s “Country Boy,” Cindy Walker’s “I Don’t Care,” and of course, Bill Monroe’s “Uncle Penn.” Along with the creek-clear acoustic music, Ricky’s voice still rings with the Monroe-like high lonesome voice that’s always been such a pleasure to hear. This record feels like it’s the product of afternoon on a summer front porch rather than a professionally clean recording studio.
The critical question here is why release acoustic re-recordings of past hits familiar to fans and true believers. One listen to each song makes it clear that the acoustic bluegrass arrangements and performances have deepened the experience of the integrity of these songs. In a sense, he’s brought them home. This album is also an opportunity to remind us and to perhaps inform younger artists and fans that mainstream breakthroughs do happen to those who remain true to their core vision, which Ricky has done throughout his career. As a collection presented with warmth and ease, Country Hits Bluegrass Style also serves as a reminder of Ricky Skaggs importance in today’s Americana music culture being one of the first artists to breakthrough with something new while using something old some three decades ago. He’s done it again with this new album. While it may not see the phenomenal success of days-gone-by, this collection is a reminder of the roots we need to cling to and the vision an artist like Ricky Skaggs can bring to music today.