“It’s bluegrass time,” proclaimed Ricky Skaggs on Friday night at Rupp Arena, affirming not only his status as patriarch of the string music sound that has been the Lawrence County native’s lifelong calling, but also the home court advantage he and the co-billed Kentucky Headhunters held over headliner Alabama.
It would be easy to go all jingoistic and root for Skaggs’ current career resurgence, largely triggered by his recent induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the electric blues-country matrix of the Metcalfe County-rooted Headhunters simply because they are neighbors of sorts. But such favoritism wasn’t needed. The country-pop vets of Alabama were on very shaky performance ground last night and proved no match for the Kentucky acts they invited onto the bill.
For starters, only two of the four members that made Alabama a yearly sellout attraction at Rupp during the early ‘80s were on hand. Drummer Mark Herndon was not invited to take part in the extended reunions that followed Alabama’s initial disbanding in 2004, while co-founding guitarist Jeff Cook, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2017, is absent from the band’s current tour. That meant the Alabama lineup that performed with such ease as a four- and five-piece unit three decades ago was paired down to a duo backed by six support players.
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What was left on Friday simply wasn’t a surefooted performance enterprise. Lead vocalist Randy Owen looked and sounded noticeably tired (he referenced having the flu during some between song banter). He presented relaxed and whispery readings of ballads like “Feels So Right” and “Lady Down on Love,” but ended most songs with reprises where he simply let the audience sing the chorus. Curiously, it was bassist Teddy Gentry – essentially, a silent partner during the band’s ‘80s heyday - that seemed to keep things together by taking on much of the stage chat and band interaction.
Interestingly enough, the song that seemed to finally pull the band together was a spirited reading of the pop-inflected title tune to 1983’s “The Closer You Get” album, a work penned by Central Kentucky songsmith and longtime Exile skipper J.P. Pennington. In many ways, that cemented the Kentucky presence that began to take hold at the onset of the evening.
During a brief, half-hour opening set, the Headhunters did what they have always done naturally – establish a rural country voice for heavily electric music that owed greatly to blues and blues-rock. Most modern country acts, in spot-checking their influences, don’t go much deeper than Lynyrd Skynyrd. The Headhunters referenced blue guitar giant Freddie King by way of a suitably soulful take on the chestnut “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” with guitarist Greg Martin ably channeling the song’s ageless blues muse. Ditto for the Chuck Berrry-style makeover of “Oh, Lonesome Me” and the band’s hit reading of “Walk Softly On This Heart of Mine” that owed more to “Honky Tonk Women” era Rolling Stones than it did to the song’s originator, bluegrass forefather Bill Monroe.
Speaking of bluegrass, that’s where Skaggs came in. Having been part of a neo- traditionalist movement in the mid ‘80s that helped dethrone bands like Alabama from country hierarchy, he now seems quite comfortable in his role as a scholarly string band elder.
Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder ensemble was more of a battalion than a band, armed with three guitarists, a monster fiddler (Mike Barnett) and a rhythmic command that was as strong as oak. That provided a very solid base of operations for nuggets like “How Mountain Girls Can Love” and “Black Eyed Suzie,” which bookended the 40 minute set, as well as bluegrass-modified arrangements of such vintage Skaggs country hits as “Highway 40 Blues” and a brief gospel segment highlighted by the homey testimony of Red Smiley’s “I Heard My Mother Call My Name in Prayer.”
Nothing, though, matched the impact of watching the Rupp crowd of 7,500 on its feet, singing along with the chorus to the Monroe-penned standard “Uncle Pen” and then have Skaggs tear through the song’s melody on mandolin with warp speed accuracy. It was a brilliantly executed (and received) tribute from a Kentucky legend now in the midst of a hearty career renaissance to another bluegrass inspiration that more than once made his presence known during this Rupp summit.