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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1475

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Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby
by George Graham

(Sony Legacy 06686 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/7/2007)

The pop music business is littered with duet recordings consisting of pairs of stars collaborating for the first time. They tend to be from different genres, and most often they are vocal duets. And usually, they are pretty bad, done more as a marketing ploy, or just as a novelty, than as a genuine musical partnership. But this week, we have a recording that breaks that unfortunate mold. It's the joint album descriptively called Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby.

Skaggs and Hornsby are both million-selling, Grammy-winning artists in their own fields. Skaggs first in bluegrass, then country music, and for the last decade back in bluegrass. Hornsby is the piano-playing singer-songwriter who achieved surprising commercial success with his literate, musically sophisticated songs. He has also worked with a quite a number of diverse artists over the years, including the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, and Branford Marsalis. He is one of those very rare artists who has achieved considerable commercial success while maintaining a high level of musical sophistication, letting elements of jazz into his music. The only other such popular artist to come to mind is Sting. Skaggs gave up his career in commercial country to concentrate on his first love, bluegrass, and his group Kentucky Thunder has helped to increase the visibility and popularity of bluegrass among wider general audiences. Both Skaggs and Hornsby are exceptional musicians who like to mix musical genres, so despite their ostensible stylistic differences, the two are of a similar musical temperament: ambitious, eclectic and possessed of considerable instrumental prowess.

This project came about when Skaggs was putting together a tribute album to bluegrass great Bill Monroe, and was looking for guest musicians. He said that Hornsby was the first to respond, and his guest spot was the first to be recorded for that album. They vowed to stay in touch and eventually collaborate. This CD is the result, and as they say, it's a "beaut." The group is basically Skaggs' band Kentucky Thunder with the addition of Hornsby's piano, and some occasional guests, including a drummer, Sonny Emory, and country star John Anderson appearing on one tune. The rest of Kentucky Thunder includes guitarist Cody Kilby, bassist Mark Fain, and Andy Leftwich on mandolin. Skaggs plays most of the string instruments at one point or another, including mandolin, fiddle, and guitar. The material on the CD is a mixture of tunes by Hornsby, including some familiar ones given a new interpretation, and originals by Skaggs, with some of Skaggs' arrangements of traditional tunes. There's also a rather unlikely cover version of a tune by the late funk musician Rick James.

Ricky Skaggs' liner notes describe the musical cross-pollination that went on in connection with the sessions. Skaggs and Hornsby spent hours together playing each other records, with Hornsby playing for Skaggs favorite jazz artists including Bud Powell, Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett; and Skaggs playing for Hornsby historic traditional folk recordings by Doc Boggs, Clarence Ashley and Roscoe Holcomb, among others. That cross-pollination comes across in the music, as does the spirit of good fun that the two musicians had working, or rather playing together.

Leading off is a Bruce Hornsby tune called The Dreaded Spoon, a fun piece about an apparent dessert thief. The song has some of the familiar stylistic hallmarks of Hornsby's music, while the setting is very much in the bluegrass mode. Hornsby's piano becomes part of the ensemble, It's an instrument rarely heard in a bluegrass band. <<>>

Across the Rocky Mountains is a traditional tune arranged and sung by Skaggs. The song has an old-time Appalachian quality <<>> until Hornsby throws in some jazzy chords from time to time. <<>>

One definite highlight of the CD is an updated version of Hornsby's hit song Mandolin Rain. It's put into a minor key, giving it a more bittersweet quality, and the acoustic instrumentation provides excellent accompaniment, including, naturally enough, Skaggs on mandolin. <<>>

There is one instrumental on the CD. Stubb was written by Skaggs it gives his band a chance to show off while Hornsby keeps a generally low profile at the piano. <<>>

Taking a somewhat more countrified direction is a song called Come On Out, co-written by Gordon Kennedy, who appears on the track on resonator guitar. The song, about a fugitive is nicely done, with the lead vocal by Skaggs. <<>>

In Hornsby's story-song style is Night on the Town. Again, the acoustic setting nicely suits Hornsby's sophisticated song. <<>>

On the other hand, the traditional old-timey sound is featured on Sheep Shell Corn, with Skaggs playing one of the dual fiddles, as well as the clawhammer-style banjo among other instruments, by overdubbing. Despite the style, it's Hornsby who does the vocal. <<>>

The CD ends with its most surprising and fun track, Super Freak the Rick James funk song done as a kind of old-timey fiddle tune. Country artists John Anderson makes a guest appearance doing some of the ad-libbed vocals, while the band plays some hot bluegrass. <<>>

Most of the time the combination of two popular but stylistically dissimilar artists is an interesting novelty at best, and a shamelessly commercial embarrassment at worst. But new joint album called Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby is a wonderful collaboration in which the two popular artists' sense of good fun in working together is palpable. Though the backing ensemble is Skaggs' band, the musical influences are about evenly divided, with five of the eleven tracks written by Hornsby. It's rather like so-called New Acoustic music, which uses the instrumentation of bluegrass to perform often jazzy music, but in this case, there is the added factor of the Hornsby's piano giving the music an interesting texture. It all works exceptionally well, and every track has something worthwhile to offer.

Our grade for sound quality is a "B-plus." The mix has everything in the right proportions and the acoustic instruments are recorded cleanly, but as is so often the case, there is too much volume compression on the CD, robbing the music of some dynamics and the subtleties of both instruments and vocals. This kind of music does not need to be pumped up in volume.

Jazz musicians collaborate all the time, and the result is usually very good, mainly because of the level of musicianship involved. Skaggs and Hornsby have the "chops" as they say, and their long careers of working with other diverse musicians has instilled their sense of musical congeniality. It's definitely a excellent album that will likely stand as highlight of both their respective careers.

(c) Copyright 2007 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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