Skaggs Family Records recently reissued Ricky Skaggs’ classic Highways & Heartaches album, with plans to reissue three more of his early ‘80s releases. As such, this seems like a good opportunity to revisit Highways & Heartaches:
Released in 1982, Highways & Heartaches was Ricky Skaggs’ second album for Epic Records. The previous year, his Epic debut, the gold-selling Waitin’ For The Sun To Shine, had produced three Top 10 hits, including two #1’s. In 1981, Nashville was still at the height of the Urban Cowboy craze, and there was considerable concern then (as now) that country music was rapidly drifting on an irreversible course towards pop. Therefore, it was nothing short of remarkable that a 27-year-old tradition-based singer, from a bluegrass background, was signed to a major label and given free rein to produce his own album, with little interference from label executives. And that it went on to achieve great commercial success and critical acclaim, was even more astounding.
Whatever fears there may have been about a sophomore slump were quickly alleviated, when Highways & Heartaches quickly outsold its predecessor, becoming Skaggs’ only platinum album, and producing three #1 singles and one more that just missed the top spot.
The album opens with the Guy Clark composition “Heartbroke”, which was the album’s lead single and first #1. It’s interesting to note that this song was also included on the sophomore release of another newcomer who had also made his major label debut in 1981. And like Skaggs, George Strait was also one of the first of a group of artists that would eventually be known as the “neotraditionalists”, who, in a few years’ time would knock virtually all of the pop-country artists of the day off the charts and return country music to its roots.
The next single was the heartfelt “I Wouldn’t Change You If I Could”, which also peaked #1 on the Billboard Country Singles chart, as did the toe-tapping up-tempo number “Highway 40 Blues”. “You’ve Got a Lover” just missed the top spot, peaking at #2 in early 1983. Unlike many albums of the day, there is no “filler” on Highways & Heartaches. Any one of the ten tracks could have been released to radio as singles, and all of them would have performed well. My particular favorites among the non-singles are Wayland Patton’s “Don’t Think I’ll Cry” and “Let’s Love the Bad Times Away”, Rodney Crowell’s “One Way Rider”, and the Bill Monroe classic “Can’t You Hear Me Callin’”, with which Skaggs pays homage to his bluegrass roots and That High Lonesome Sound.
Nowadays many albums coming out of Nashville sound like the vocalist is singing along with a karaoke machine. This is decidedly not the case with Highways & Heartaches – or any Skaggs record, for that matter. A roster of top-notch musicians was assembled for this project, from pianist Buck White (Skagg’s father-in-law) to steel-guitarist Weldon Myrick, who had played in Connie Smith’s band and on many of her recordings, to Dobro player Jerry Douglas, and Sharon White (Skaggs’ wife) who provided the background vocals on several tracks. And then there is Skaggs himself, providing the lead vocals and playing several instruments including guitar, mandolin and fiddle.
I’ll admit that as a teenager who had been weaned on Urban Cowboy country-pop, Ricky Skaggs was somewhat of an acquired taste for me, but once acquired, that taste was never lost. Listening to his early ‘80s work makes me hope that the current generation’s answer to Ricky Skaggs will emerge soon.
Purchase Highways & Heartaches from Amazon.
Listen to Ricky Skaggs at Last FM:
I Wouldn’t Change You If I Could
Highway 40 Blues
You’ve Got a Lover