Review - Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder
tenors own bluegrass, and Skaggs’ soaring voice ranks with those of
Monroe, Red Allen, and Ralph Stanley. His agile mandolin playing, too,
is on par with anyone’s in the genre. Moreover, sidemen Paul Brewster
on rhythm guitar and tenor vocal, Cody Kilby on lead guitar, Andy
Leftwich on fiddle, Jim Mills on five-string banjo, Darrin Vincent on
archtop guitar and baritone vocals, and Mark Fain on string bass were
all flawless. Not a note was sung off key or missed on an instrument.
And considering that much of this music is improvised eight-to-the-bar
soloing at breakneck tempos, that’s a marvel.
The show, a single 20-song set with two encores, mirrored Skaggs’ own career by starting out with classics from the early days of bluegrass, including “Mother’s Only Sleeping” and “Loving Another Man,” fast-forwarding to material by contemporary songwriters Harley Allen, himself, and others, and returning to old chestnuts like “Uncle Pen” and “Black-Eyed Susie.” All this was interspersed with his down-home soliloquies: His formidable Baptist mother raised him right because she beat him with an old-fashioned wooden switch for his youthful misbehavior. He knew the high-cholesterol joys of fried chicken cooked in lard with the skin left on. And, being a born-again Christian, he preached a bit, leaving this listener feeling less like a concertgoer than a vagrant in a Salvation Army soup kitchen waiting for the sermon to end so he could eat.
Picking the high points of the music isn’t easy; it was really just one long pinnacle. Still, in the opening song, “How Mountain Girls Can Love,” Cody Kilby fired off a stupefyingly fast, precise flatpicking guitar solo in which he used the open strings to rapidly jump up and down the neck, a technique he would employ to great effect all night. “Bluegrass Breakdown” was a rollicking instrumental in which the fiddle, banjo, guitar, and mandolin all took stunning solos, and Skaggs’ tenor vocals effortlessly conquered the high notes on “Little Maggie.” On the first encore, the group followed the longstanding country-music tradition of closing a concert with a sacred song, here a gospel quartet rendition of “Remember the Cross” backed only by guitar and mandolin before tacking on an uptempo “Shady Grove.”
chicken, and mama’s switchin’—this was a night of red-state soul
that had it all.
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