When his mainstream career wound down, Ricky Skaggs decided to pick up his mandolin and returned to his roots in bluegrass. He didn’t do it half heartedly – this is an uncompromisingly hard bluegrass set with high lonesome vocals, tight harmonies and nimble picking. Produced by Skaggs himself, the album featured and credited his road band Kentucky Thunder, and was released on Rounder Records.
Opens with a spoken statement by the late gospel bass-vocalist J. D. Sumner, “country rocks but bluegrass rules” then the band swings straight into an uncompromising Bill Monroe-composed instrumental, ‘Get Up John’. There are a couple of other instrumentals, another from Monroe bookending the project, and one composed by Ricky midway through the set. They break up the vocal tracks but do feel a bit samey.
Virtually all the songs deal with tragedy and lost love. In his teenage years, Ricky was a member of Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys (along with Keith Whitley), and that experience seems to be the overwhelming inspiration of this album. The Stanley Brothers are a major source of material, with two songs written by each of Carter and Ralph. Carter’s ‘Think Of What You’ve Done’ offers a measured reproach to the woman who has broken his heart by leaving him for another man. It is excellent, as is the rhythmic ‘Ridin’ That Midnight Train’ with another broken heart lyric about leaving town with the blues in similar circumstances. Ralph’s ‘Little Maggie’ with its high mountain lead vocals has a very pure heritage feel, while the perky ‘If I Lose’ is the record’s sole happy song, with love making gambling losses unimportant.
Although they did not write it (the credit goes to Southern hymn writer Albert Brumley), the somber spiritual classic ‘Rank Stranger’ is probably also best known as part of the Stanley Brothers’ repertoire. Ricky’s version is a real highlight of this record, with gospel trio vocals from the band.
The quieter but intensely mournful ‘Another Night’ is another fine song dealing with the pain of lost love, as is the Earl Scruggs number ‘Somehow Tonight’.
‘I Hope You’ve Learned’ is a reproach from a man in prison to his cheating wife, wondering if she will wait for him when he is finally released. A fine song in the high lonesome style, one is, however, left wondering what exactly he did, propelled by his jealousy (wifebeating?), and the fact that he is still blaming her for it is rather troubling. This is one case where I don’t think I’d be waiting.
In a stern warning to ‘The Drunken Driver’, Ricky relates the story of a terrible accident:
These two dear kids walked side by side
Out on the state highway
Their loving mother, she had died
And their father had run away
They were talking of their loving parents
How sad their hearts did feel
When around the curve came a speeding car
With a drunk man at the wheel
The driver saw these two dear kids
And hooted a drunkard sound
“Get out of the road, you little fools”
And the car had brought them down
The driver staggered from his car
To see what he had done
His heart sank within him
When he saw his dying son
Yes, the drunken driver has managed to run over his own abandoned children. The little boy then rubs it in for his penitent father, gasping out as he lies dying,
“Take us to our mother, Dad
She sleeps beneath the ground
It was you and her we were talking about
When the car had knocked us down
And please, dear Dad, don’t drink no more
While driving on your way
But meet us with our mother, Dad
In Heaven some sweet day”
The story is so melodramatic it might be hard for some contemporary listeners to take seriously, but Ricky’s dead straight reading gives it some impact, and it fits into a long standing tradition of songs of this kind which are a valuable part of bluegrass (and more general country music) heritage; it was recorded by country star Ferlin Husky in the ‘50s but has the feel of something 20 years older still.
This is a hard record to assign a grade to, as there is nothing to criticise, with excellent musicianship but it is not an easy listen for those with little exposure to bluegrass, and there is not much variety. I did enjoy it a lot, but it isn’t one of my favourite Skaggs albums, as I tend to prefer those where he mixes country and bluegrass. Those with less of a taste for bluegrass without any country elements may want to pass.