Most country music stars record less frequently once the major label phase of their careers end, but Ricky Skaggs is a notable exception to the rule: his independent albums far outnumber his major label efforts. From a fan’s standpoint, this is a good thing, though he has become so prolific it is sometimes difficult to keep up with his output. Music To My Ears, which was released last week, dropped just a little over a year after 2011′s Country Hits Bluegrass Style and a second volume of Skaggs family Christmas songs.
Like most of Skaggs’ post-1997 output, Music To My Ears leans heavily toward bluegrass; however, this is not strictly a collection of bluegrass tunes. He pushes the envelope just a bit by incorporating some Celtic instruments such as the bagpipes and tin whistle, along with the occasional electric guitar and keyboard. Some bluegrass purists may cry foul, but the vast majority of time the blending of styles works well. A prime example is “What You Are Waiting For”, an inspirational but not overtly religious number, which effectively combines some traditional bluegrass instruments — banjo and mandolin — with a piano intro, and some electric guitar tracks and background vocals that would not sound out of place on today’s country radio.
Overall, however, the album’s more traditional numbers are its best — from the high lonesome sound of the opening track “Blue Night” and Carter Stanley’s “Loving You Too Well”, to the wonderful picking on the instrumental “New Jerusalem”, which Ricky wrote. And then there’s the unusual “You Can’t Hurt Ham”, a Skaggs co-write with Gordon Kennedy, who co-produced the album with Ricky. It is, essentially, a tongue-in-cheek tune about spoiled food and the supposed long shelf life of ham. While I don’t agree with his claim of “no refrigerate, no expire date”, the song is a very entertaining number.
Like most of Ricky’s albums, Music To My Ears contains a handful of religious and inspirational numbers. There’s the aformentioned “New Jerusalem” and “What You Are Waiting For”, as well as the more openly religious title track, and the family-values themed “Nothing Beats A Family”. Interestingly, none of the members of the Skaggs-White clan makes any appearances on this album.
The one track that doesn’t quite work is the apparent centerpiece of the album, “Soldier’s Son”, a duet with Barry Gibb. The song itself, which Gibb wrote with his children Ashley and Stephen, is not bad but its attempt to alternate between bluegrass and mainstream pop elements seems a bit forced. Aside from that,I’ve never been able to tolerate Gibb’s singing and that alone is enough to spoil the song for me. It is however, the album’s sole misstep, with the possible exception of the background vocals at the end of “Nothing Beats A Family.” All in all, however, there is far more here to like than dislike, unless one is just not a bluegrass fan. Those who are will find this collection most enjoyable.