October 1, 2012
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Randy Travis is usually credited with kicking off the New Traditionalist movement of the mid-1980s, but that movement’s origins actually preceded Travis’ 1986 breakthrough by a good five years when both George Strait and Ricky Skaggs made their major label debuts. Skaggs, in particular, was an unlikely success story, having paid his dues on the bluegrass scene for a decade before joining Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band and then eventually striking out on his own. A native of Cordell, Kentucky, and a former child prodigy, he took country music by surprise when his blend of bluegrass and traditional country took him to the top of the charts at the peak of the Urban Cowboy era.
Skaggs was born on July 18, 1954. He was playing the mandolin at the age of five, and made his Grand Ole Opry debut at age seven. During that time, he also performed with the legendary Flatt and Scruggs. In 1971 he teamed up with another up-and-coming Kentuckian named Keith Whitley and joined Ralph Stanley’s band. He later went on to become the bandleader of Boone Creek before turning his attention to mainstream country. He joined Emmlyou Harris on the road, and writing the arrangements for her 1980 bluegrass-flavored masterpiece Roses In The Snow. He had released his first solo album That’s It in 1975 and in 1979, Sweet Temptation, which he produced himself, was released by Sugar Hill Records.
By 1981 Ricky was ready for the big leagues. Epic Records signed him to a record deal and granted him permission to produce his records himself — a most unusual concession for a still unproven 27-year-old newcomer. Waitin’ For The Sun To Shine was released later that year and produced four hit singles, including his first #1 hits, “Crying My Heart Out Over You” and “I Don’t Care.” In 1982 he became the youngest artist up to that time to be inducted as a member of the Grand Ole Opry and in 1985 he was named the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year.
Skaggs scored ten #1 hits between 1981 and 1987. After that, his chart success began to taper off, though he continued to enjoy some success for a few more years. In 1989 Dolly Parton asked him to produce her back-to-basics album White Limozeen. Later that year he scored his final #1 “Lovin’ Only Me” from his Kentucky Thunder album. 1989’s “Let It Be Me” was his final Top 10 hit. In 1995 he signed with Atlantic Records and released two more albums which enjoyed only moderate success.
During the first decade of the new millennium, Skaggs founded his own record label and returned to his bluegrass roots, releasing a string of critically acclaimed albums and winning nine Grammy Awards in the process. His latest effort, Music To My Ears, was released on September 25th. We hope you enjoy our look back at the career highlights of one of the most talented musicians in the history of bluegrass and country music, throughout the month of October.
July 25, 2012
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Recorded at the Sheldon Concert Hall in St. Louis, MO, Ragin’ Live marks Rhonda Vincent’s first live album and first time she’s used her band The Rage on a recording. Released in the spring of 2005, it’s a “greatest hits” album of sorts as she and the band run down their most popular tunes with a palpable fiery energy and immaculate musicianship that comes from performing in front of a crowd.
The set opens with an introduction by Hank Janney, a Bluegrass DJ from Gettysburg, PA before the band rips into a spirited version of “Kentucky Borderline.” Excellent cover tunes follow, such as “Drivin’ Nails In My Coffin,” and their versions of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” Jimmie Rogers’ “Muleskinner Blues,” Flatt and Scruggs “So Happy I’ll Be,” and Bobby Osborne’s “Bluegrass Express.” Each bring something new to the respective tune and because of their consistently high quality, it’s difficult to pick a favorite.
As with her studio recordings, Vincent (and this time the band) shines brightest on the up-tempo material. Lyrical tunes such as “One Step Ahead of the Blues” and “Martha White Theme” are great, but the full breathe of their prowess as a band is best displayed on the incredible instrumental tracks. Hunter Berry’s fantastic fiddle lick at the start of the old-time country “Me Too” gives way to a fabulous mix of fiddle, mandolin and dobro while “Road Rage” makes excellent use of Kenny Ingram’s superb abilities with the banjo. “Son Drop In” is another fine showcase of Barry’s fiddling, and “Frankie Bell” makes sufficient use of Vincent’s other talent as a first rate mandolin picker.
I always felt the decision to pack the seat full of high-energy numbers works well because it gives the recording a sunny and upbeat disposition even if the lyrical content is decidedly somber. The record beams with the band’s enjoyment of playing and singing together and that combination bring a welcomed relaxation to the proceedings.
But it also works in favor of the slower numbers, which stand out against the rip-roaring backdrop. It’s been well documented that Vincent is one of the greatest country and bluegrass vocalists to ever live, and she shows that here.
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June 23, 2011
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Veteran Texan singer-songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore has teamed up with the fabulously named Wronglers for a look back into the roots of country music. This is a convincing reconstruction of the acoustic string band music which was to grow into country music. The Wronglers’ Heidi Clare and Colleen Browne (who play fiddle and bass respectively) add harmony vocals throughout; the talented Heidi was also responsible for all the arrangements.
Jimmie Dale’s distinctive voice, with its echoes of Willie Nelson, works well on songs like the plaintive Johnny Bond classic ‘I Wonder Where You Are Tonight’. A pained version of the Bob Wills classic ‘Time Changes Everything’ is a real highlight, and my favorite track is a lovely, tender take on the Carter Family’s ‘I’m Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes’. Country music pioneer Charlie Poole originally recorded ‘Leavin’ Home’, the story of Frankie and Johnny, back in 1926. It has a sprightly feel belying the dark lyrics of this murder ballad. Jimmie Davis’s ‘Columbus Stockade Blues’ is another authentic-sounding song from the roaring ’20s. The fanciful Depression-era ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’ is rather charming; it is performed as a duet with the Wronglers’ frontman and banjo player, Warren Hellman, a retired financier who is the promoter of California’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival. I also enjoyed ‘Foggy Mountain Top’, a folk song which A.P. Carter found and copyrighted.
Bluegrass gets a nod with Flatt and Scruggs’ ‘If I Should Wander Back’, which is a bit dull, the oddly jubilant ‘Footprints In The Snow’, and an enjoyably sedate version of Bill Monroe’s ‘Uncle Pen’. The latter’s namechecking of older songs seems perfectly appropriate on this heritage-infused album. The traditional blues number ‘Deep Ellum Blues’ harks back to yet another source of American roots music. Less effective for me are the groups’ versions of Doc Watson’s ‘Way Downtown’ and the Delmore Brothers’ ‘Brown’s Ferry Blues’, while the traditional ‘In The Pines’ drags a bit.
The very elaborate packaging and artwork with the band dressed up in 19th century outfits adds to the mood of historical recreation. Perhaps this dressing up rather than letting the music speak for itself makes it more redolent of modern reenactors of historic battles than the real thing, but on the whole I am enjoying listening to this and having a bygone era evoked.
Buy it at amazon.