Monday, October 1, 2012

CD REVIEW - Ricky Skaggs - Music To My Ears

By: W.J. Hallock

Image634952375350786008Ricky Skaggs - Music To My Ears

Skaggs Family Records

Released Sept. 2012

Ricky Skaggs is one of the most consistently excellent, continually relevant and important artists still passionately making quality music in Nashville today. His ever faithful fan base, his influence on up and coming young musicians, his awards, accolades and number one hits on the charts make his career historic. With his newest release , MUSIC TO MY EARS, it’s obvious that Mr. Skaggs has no plans to just rest on his laurels.

      Produced by Ricky, and recorded at his Skaggs Place Studios, this could be his finest studio work ever. Excellent song choices, top shelf musicianship, a surprise guest that brings HIS A-Game to the project, production that is absolutely dead on and Ricky bringing 150% of his considerable talents to this recording all make it a guaranteed winner.

      There is a richness, a fullness, a texture and quality to this recording that is like none I have ever heard from Ricky before. He plays eight different instruments here, but it feels like he has turned his studio into the newest instrument he has mastered and he now knows all the nuances and “sweet spots” that are inherent to this specific medium. The vocal tracks on this record are absolutely wonderful….. whether three and four part bluegrass harmony or an emotional, spiritual and lush choral affect on the more eclectic songs, the vocals are marvelous. Vocals don’t get any better than this…..  

       Instrumentally, Ricky has a who’s who list of pickers to rely on. From his own band, Kentucky Thunder, he uses Cody Kilby on guitar, Andy Leftwich on fiddle, Justin Moses on banjo and Paul Brewster on vocals. 

      Besides being Ricky’s co-producer, Gordon Kennedy, plays acoustic and electric guitar and adds his voice to those oh-so-nice vocals. Several songs have a “Chieftains” like Irish aura to them where Jeff Taylor plays accordion and whistle. Skip Clevenger also plays whistle, and his bagpipes help to make the song “Soldier’s Son” hauntingly affective. The piano artistry of Ben Cooper is only heard on one song, but he makes it very memorable. In my humble opinion, Ben’s piano could have been utilized more.  THE Barry Bales, of Alison Krauss and Union Station, came in and played all the bass tracks. Sweet! 

      Ricky has always been good at choosing songs that fit him like a glove. All eleven of this CD’s songs will probably end up being “Ricky’s” songs.  Carter Stanley’s “Lovin’ You Too Well,” and Jimmy Driftwood’s “Tennessee Stud,” which Ricky dedicates to Doc Watson, are great examples of Ricky at his best.  

      The only instrumental, “New Jerusalem,” which was written by Mr. Skaggs, is a barn burner!  Gordon Kennedy and Ricky put some light hearted fun into their collaboration “You Can’t Hurt Ham.”  Minnie Pearl would have loved it as much as I do! 

      The title song for this CD, “Music To My Ears,” is a personal favorite. Written by Becky Buller, Lisa Aschmann and Mark Simos, it’s simple spirituality becomes an anthem to the beauty of God’s word.  As the arrangement builds in praise and intensity, it has an almost hypnotic affect as the melody’s “hook” line is played over and over, pushing and driving the song’s message home. And it couldn’t be more fitting for this powerful song to end almost in a whisper. It also couldn’t be more fitting for Ricky Skaggs, known for his faith and love of Scripture, to record this particular song. Almost like a match made in heaven……

      Leave it to Ricky to bring on board super star singer song-writer Barry Gibb. “Soldier’s Son” takes as big a departure from bluegrass as it’s possible to take, but, Ricky pulls it off and makes it fit right in, just like it was made for this project. Written by Barry, with Ashley Gibb and Stephan Gibb, the song is haunting and dramatic, with, again, that “Chieftain’s” eeriness.  The way Ricky and Barry switch off on the lead vocal, and the wall of background vocals erected, make the singing magnificent. 

      Such different singers making such a unique and interesting sound together is producer foresight at it’s best. Another instance of “Picky Ricky” nailing it with his golden touch in the studio. The most interesting thing about this song is that it also could have been taken in a totally acoustic direction and it would have been just as meaningful. 

      Skip Clevenger’s bagpipes MAKE this song, and the electric guitars and affects add a body and rhythm that absolutely propels it. No drummer is listed in the liner notes, but, Ricky’s staff confirmed for me that electronic drums were used on this song. Their affect on “Soldier’s Son” can only be described as dynamic! If my ears don’t deceive me, drums were also used on several other songs.  

      The inclusion of new technology into Ricky’s recording process further convinces me that Ricky may be firmly attached to old time music and vintage acoustic instruments, but he keeps an ear to the ground for gear that will improve and enhance his music. And, as usual, he’s way in front of the curve.

      It took several listenings before the real influence and contributions of Gordon Kennedy finally sunk in. His musicianship, writing and production help are more than evident by the quality of the finished product. Four of the original songs here are his co-writes, and all flavor the end result greatly.

      “You Know You Can’t Hurt Ham” is straight ahead bluegrass. “What Are You Waiting For” and “Nothing Beats A Family,” both written with pianist Ben Cooper, have a progressive bluegrass/country element to them that make this a very tender, yet modern, CD. 

      “You Are Something else,” written with Wayne Kirkpatrick and Mellinda Schneider, can only be described as pop bluegrass!  I know that sounds strange, but….. this CD has an individuality all it’s own.  And that individuality is a direct result of song selection and production direction. Every song can be analyzed on it’s own merits and found to be different than the one right before and right after it. And THAT is what I love about this recording the most!  

      This CD is a testament to the fact that there are so many sides, angles, facets and incarnations to RICKY SKAGGS, and everything he records, he makes his own. 

      As another odd observation….. the very first song, “Blue Night,” by David Kirk McGee, feels just like it could have been a song off one of Ricky’s very first releases back in his country days.  The tempo, the drive, the feel….. its all there. All that would be needed is for Ricky to have used a stinging Fender Telecaster, drums and steel guitar and he would probably have another COUNTRY hit on his hands!  Come to think of it, he could have recorded most of this CD with that 80’s instrumental lineup and the country DJ’s would be fighting to see who would be playing it first. Maybe, just maybe….. Ricky could save country music AGAIN, just like Chet Atkins said he did in the early 80’s! 

      Ricky is a bluegrass artist, a country artist, a Christian artist, an innovator, a virtuoso, a perfectionist and a super star.  And you can hear him be all those things, and more, as he blows the doors off every song on this recording!

      Yep……this one MUST be in your collection!


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