Words by: Sarah Hagerman | Images by: Dave Jackson
Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder :: 12.11.08 :: One World Theater :: Austin, TX
The One World Theater is a picturesque 300-person capacity Austin venue that resembles a Tuscan villa, cuddled up in the hills just west of town where an affluent slice of the population dwells. Flipping through the One World program, I couldn't help but notice the number of cosmetic surgery advertisements. The crowd was made up of mostly older folks dressed to the nines, a considerably more conservative bunch than I'm used to. But when Ricky Skaggs got on that stage, it didn't seem to matter to him that the cozy room was maybe three quarters full. One got the sense he would play with the same enthusiasm for 40 people as he would for 4400 at the Opry.
Opening with "How Mountain Girls Can Love," a tone was set for the evening – lots of joyfully played standards, from Monroe classics to Shawn Camp and Guy Clark's "Sis Draper" and The Louvin Brothers' "Family Who Prays" thrown in for good measure. He was flanked by the stellar musicians in Kentucky Thunder, who passed on the chance to show off their chops and instead elected to focus on sharp interplay. Although I usually like my bluegrass served up with more darkness, dirt and unpolished experimentation, this evening was an opportunity to curl up to an essential warmth burning in the heart of this music, led by a man whose done quite a lot over the years to put bluegrass in people's frontal lobes.
The One World likes to schedule two shows in one night, so we saw the second helping of Skaggs for the evening, and it was heavy on the stage banter. Maybe it's just something about playing a mandolin that inspires onstage verbosity, but Skaggs was joyously bouncing off the wall. "We actually get paid for this!" he grinned, after a buoyant "Pig in a Pen." "It's what I wanted to do all my life!" Later he would give props to the younger musicians keeping the sound alive. "You see, I think that God loved bluegrass so much, he couldn't keep it to himself," he mused. The banter escalated into goofiness as the set progressed, with the high point perhaps being Skaggs joking about bumping bluegrass in your car to counter another driver's bass-heavy, window-rattling styles (which I confess I have actually done – although it thankfully didn't turn into some sort of square dance-off where I would have doubtlessly gotten served, it just provoked confused looks). The silliness wasn't limited to Skaggs. During "Kentucky Waltz," Paul Brewster's golden-throated wail broke down in laughter at the end of the song, as he was drawn in by the collective screwball feeling that washed away the blue and lonesome.
Adding to the good clean fun vibe, Skaggs and company busted out a sleigh full of Christmas carols, such as "Christmas Times A-Comin'," a song made famous by Monroe, although originally written by Tex Logan, with its lyrics about "coming back to my old country home." It conjured up pastoral images and even made me feel nostalgic as I knew I wasn't going home for Christmas this year (even if, "my ranch-style suburban home," doesn't quite have the same ring to it). As a lapsed Episcopalian, I always associated "Away in a Manger" with slobbery children braying off-key in Christmas pageant costumes constructed out of bed sheets and tinsel haloes hanging on for dear life to a pipe cleaner frame. Precious, but not exactly musical. But Kentucky Thunder put the tune into a textured, lovely frame, with a gorgeous crying fiddle and lush harmonies you could wade in, that effectively reclaimed my memories of the song. Finally, a "Deck the Halls" breakdown, complete with woops and hollers, capped off the holiday section.
|Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder :: 12.11 :: Austin, TX|
With a well-oiled group like the Thunder, it's damn near impossible to single out one musician. IBMA-winner Jim Mills was expectedly impressive, making the banjo sing out strong during "Toy Heart" and "Pick Along." The 26-year old Andy Leftwich on fiddle was riveting, particularly his interpretation of Django Reinhardt's "Minor Swing." The gypsy swing translated finely in a down home setting, the classic recipe mixed well while Skaggs and Leftwich spiked the punch with shots of shine, gulping down the universalism of Reinhardt's music. But I was personally most taken in by Cody Kilby (guitar), whose fingers flew up and down the fretboard during "Little Maggie" and a lightning fast "Bluegrass Breakdown." He was a constant jolt to the core combustion engine. Rounding out the Thunder was eye of the calm guitarist Ben Helson, playing his last show with Kentucky Thunder, according to the stage banter, to join up with Rhonda Vincent's band, while bassist Mark Fain held down the low end, although he had to contend with the surprising, odd hiss of feedback, which he nonchalantly rolled over while gesturing to the sound booth with one hand.
But it was Skaggs who embodied that easy-going heart throughout the evening with a relaxed manner, but watch-your-fingers picking style. It sometimes slow-dripped like honey, sometimes cascaded quickly, a waterfall over sharp rocks, but all with a lack of showboating. When he did rightfully show off, it was with a winking grin, and then an excited pass back to the skills surrounding him in Kentucky Thunder. Coupled with his warm, tickling-the-base-of-your-spine voice, Skaggs creates a genuine blossom planted with unpretentious acumen. After the last notes of "Black Eyed Susan," we funneled out into the cold hill country night. But standing on the balcony overlooking the blackened landscape, with its twinkling lights scattered across the dark expanse, it was effortless to feel good natured about this old world.
Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder are on tour now, dates available here.
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