Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby – Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby
Back in 1998 Bruce Hornsby told me about his desire to make a keyboard bluegrass album. Anything’s possible, but the warm tone normally heard from Hornsby didn’t seem appropriate for the pickin’ style. Which, I guess, is why music is performed and heard rather than critiqued based solely on an idea. Nine years later and that album has been released. The initial discussion made it seem as if, like other albums that bear his name, this project would revolve mainly around Hornsby’s piano playing. A one-off session with Ricky Skaggs for a Bill Monroe tribute album settled who could make this thought into reality. Not only does Skaggs make for a stellar and sympathetic musician to this endeavor, but his backing band, Kentucky Thunder, also provides the type of solid foundation that allows the album’s two stars to move their way into the spotlight as well as laying back in a supporting role. The two split the album pretty evenly as far as compositions and lead vocals.Gauging the success of this collaboration comes immediately. Barely 15 seconds into track one (“The Dreaded Spoon”), there’s an intricate string of notes provided by Hornsby and Andy Leftwich on fiddle that could be traced to the auditoriums of the classical world as much as it does the wood-floored halls conducive for a jig. And with that, Hornsby’s vision has coalesced into something concrete and worthwhile. Of course, there’s the rest of that number and 10 more tracks to run through. So, there’s still a possibility that it may all fall apart. It doesn’t. The reason is that all the players listen to each other, while none become overbearing in attracting the attention of the listener. Solos make sense within the context of the material, and Hornsby’s playing displays its usual fluidness and grace in addition to a spry quality that works well within the proceedings. Occasionally, more than one musical world greets each other — the propulsive rhythm created by Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder on “Across the Rocky Mountain” meets a transition more familiar on Hornsby’s solo material, which then adds a blues vamp as the final masterstroke. Taking on Hornsby’s “Mandolin Rain” reconfigures it into a form almost unrecognizable from the original, but maintaining its potency. Even the cover of Rick James’ “Super Freak” that finishes the album doesn’t cause much shock and awe because it’s a given that these musicians just can’t help themselves to a little absurd fun as they’re riding the high of all that preceded it.