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Published: 2004/12/01
by Brian Ferdman

Brand New Strings – Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder

Skaggs Family Records 6989010062

Modern day bluegrass is an interesting art form that, in some ways, presents an American cultural contradiction. On one hand, its music embodies sanctity of life and deep religious tradition, and on the other, bluegrass employs a hedonistic spirit of partying and celebration. Accordingly, while bluegrass may have originated in a conservative red state, it appeals to Americans of all walks of life. Nowhere is this more apparent than on Ricky Skaggs' latest album, Brand New Strings.

Skaggs seems to have one foot in both worlds; he is an unabashedly devout Christian, but he also can pick up a storm and sing tales of lust and reckless abandon. Not surprisingly, the songs chosen for Brand New Strings (most of them being obscure covers) speak to a broad cross-section of people. Whether it is the infectious, head-bobbing ramble of "Sally Jo," the mournful swinging waltz of "Lonesome and Dry As a Bone," or the pensive balladry of "If I Had It All Again To Do," Skaggs relishes the opportunity to sing of the universal pain of losing love. On the other hand, the title track is a frenetic, high-voltage romp that celebrates the exuberant joy of newfound love.

This exuberance is continued on both the old-time hoedown tale of the firebrand, "Sis Draper," and Skaggs' "Monroe Dancin'," a stirring instrumental reel tribute to the founder of bluegrass. Religion also plays a large role on this album, it being readily apparent in Skaggs' emotional instrumental shuffle of "1st Corinthians 1:18," the solemn repentance to God of "Why Did I Wait So Long?," and the gently rolling affirmations of "Spread a Little Love Around." Occasionally, some of the more religious themed songs have lyrics so sickeningly sweet that they force the listener to reach for a shot of insulin, but sometimes the lyrics also have unintended comic results, such as "Spread a Little Love Around"'s curious suggestion to "slap your mama's fanny, tickle on old Granny."

Although religion and "moral values" play a large role on Brand New Strings, one need not be religious or even moral to enjoy this album. Any fan of bluegrass pickin’ will find plenty of reasons to sit back and listen to Skaggs and his phenomenal band tear up these sprightly arrangements. Moreover, when Skaggs does sing about God and religion, he doesn’t bash the listener over the head with it. He merely celebrates the positive things in life, themes that are identifiable with almost anyone. In other words, Brand New Strings finds common ground amongst a broad spectrum of listeners. Much has been made about a post-election attempt to unite the culturally divided red and blue states of America. Well, music has long been a unifying force, and by trumpeting our universal truths and similarities, albums like Brand New Strings give us reason to hope for a bridge of understanding between estranged peoples.

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