Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, "Music To My Ears" (Skaggs Family/Fontana)
Ricky Skaggs has barreled down an eclectic path since going independent at the turn of the century -- after two decades as an award-winning contemporary country singer.
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In the last dozen years, he has shown off his skills as one of the most revered bluegrass and gospel artists of his generation, he's honored influences with tributes and collaborative works, and he has challenged himself with projects that explore adult pop songs and complex singer-songwriter themes.
On individual albums, he has concentrated on a specific premise. However, on "Music To My Ears," he and his skilled Kentucky Thunder band have decided to incorporate all of his interests at once. It makes for an album of surprises, with the variety of styles connected by Skaggs' expressive tenor and forceful mandolin playing.
There's hard-charging, old-school bluegrass (a cover of the Stanley Brothers' "Loving You Too Well"); tributes to Bill Monroe (a fantastic update of "Blue Night") and Doc Watson (a romping band version of "Tennessee Stud"); contemporary gospel ("Music To My Ears"); singer-songwriter musings (a cover of the Bee Gees' wholly relevant "Soldier's Son"); and harmony-rich pop ("You Are Something Else").
All together it shows that Skaggs, at age 58, continues to create powerful music that doesn't rest on laurels or reputation.
Check this out: While Skaggs has often flashed joy and humor over his career, he has never recorded a novelty song quite as goofy -- or fun -- as "You Can't Hurt Ham." In a string-band context, he sets up various scenarios where folks, especially musicians, have relied on the durable quality of cured pork.