Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder
7 and 9:30 p.m. Aug 20 at the Leeds Center for the Arts, 37 N. Main St., Winchester. $30. (859) 771-9612. Leedscenter.com.
It is perhaps an inevitable confession that comes with almost every Ricky Skaggs concert these days: The admission that the majority of the world-class acoustic pickers in his band Kentucky Thunder are really from Tennessee.
No one on hand in last month's HullabaLOU crowd at Churchill Downs seemed to mind, though. They knew the kind of roots Skaggs has in bluegrass music and within the Bluegrass State.
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The Lawrence County native has been an accepted member of the Nashville country and bluegrass communities since he took a vital role in Emmylou Harris' Hot Band more than three decades ago. That led to a solo hit-making career that kept Skaggs on the country charts throughout the '80s and much of the '90s. That career, which earned him eight Country Music Association awards, also sported collaborations with artists as seemingly disparate as Bill Monroe and Elvis Costello.
Skaggs has never strayed far from his Kentucky heritage, though. His roots were proudly displayed in the vital string music that he helped create in Lexington during the '70s with one of J.D. Crowe's most celebrated lineups of his band New South and, subsequently, the bluegrass band Boone Creek, which he co-led with dobro ace — and fellow Crowe alum/current Alison Krauss ally — Jerry Douglas.
So Kentucky Thunder it was and is. Throughout the HullabaLOU set, which was performed in the midst of stifling early evening heat, Skaggs nimbly sifted through not only his own string-music inspirations but those of his expert players. Hearing him and his band ignite the Appalachian folk epic Cumberland Gap and embrace the sterling bluegrass stride of the Stanley Brothers' I Hear a Choo Choo was a delight. But having Skaggs ride down some Django Reinhardt- inspired swing detours instigated by Kentucky Thunder fiddler Andy Leftwich was equally engaging.
The result was a performance from one of bluegrass/country's most prolific artists. But it stands as just one chapter in a career that has thrived on stylistic variety and musical daring.
Take, for instance, Skaggs' new album, Mosaic. It's not a bluegrass record, but a spiritually inclined work with heavy folk, rock, orchestral and even Celtic overtones. And to show he has plenty of pull in the pop world, Skaggs enlists Peter Frampton for a suitably electric guitar break on My Cup Runneth Over.
Rewind to last year, though, and Skaggs was working in entirely different musical company — a company of one. On the splendid Songs My Dad Loved, he recorded 13 tunes with varying shades of folk, bluegrass and country tradition in solo settings (although frequently overdubbed). Some tunes were penned by iconic songsmiths Ralph Stanley and Roy Acuff. Several were purely traditional. A few were originals. All were recorded with Skaggs playing mandolin, banjo, bass, piano, guitar, mandocello and, on the sublime Colonel Prentiss, fiddle.
Those thirsting for recorded evidence of the studio fun Skaggs can conjure with Kentucky Thunder have several recent recordings to choose from. A personal favorite is 2006's Instrumentals, which explores not only the Celtic and country influences that have helped trigger bluegrass but some of the jazz-inspired improvisational music that has come in its wake.
This leads us to Skaggs concerts Friday night at the Leeds in Winchester. Both are benefit performances for the Salvation Army's Clark County Service Unit.
Indoor Thunder? No intense summer heat? Hearing one of bluegrass/country's all-time greats in an intimate, indoor setting while doing some community good in the process? Sign me up for that.