Ricky Skaggs salutes Monroe's trailblazing lineup with new CD

Thursday, April 10, 2008

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Even if you don't care much for bluegrass, you can't help but admire Ricky Skaggs' enthusiasm for the music and its formative years.

At the slightest prodding, he'll launch into a discussion of Earl Scruggs' banjo picking, the Stanley Brothers' harmonies or Bill Monroe's slapping beat and how it laid the groundwork for early rock 'n' roll.

The bluegrass star's latest CD, "Honoring the Fathers of Bluegrass: Tribute to 1946 and 1947," salutes Monroe and his "Original Bluegrass Band" (Scruggs, guitarist Lester Flatt, fiddler Chubby Wise and bassist Howard Watts), a lineup that largely defined bluegrass as it's known today.

"There was just this new sound that emerged with those five guys," Skaggs said. "The music got more fiery."

Together, they created a fresh vocabulary of licks, backup fills, vocal arrangements and rhythms. But many credit Scruggs' three-finger playing with really kicking things into high gear. Before Scruggs, most banjo players used two fingers. That third finger gave bluegrass its distinct drive.

"What Monroe was playing prior to Earl coming into the band was good music, but it had more of an old-time flavor," Skaggs said.

On the new disc, Skaggs and his group Kentucky Thunder -- a stellar outfit in their own right -- interpret a dozen tunes from that era of Monroe's career, from staples like "Toy Heart" to the more obscure "Why Did You Wander."

A 13-time Grammy winner, Skaggs plays mandolin like his musical hero, Monroe. He stayed true to the originals and called on Scruggs, the only surviving member of Monroe's trailblazing lineup, and another Monroe alum, Del McCoury, to join them for a couple of songs.

"Every time I'm with Earl I learn something I didn't know. One little note or word or question may spark an answer I hadn't heard before," Skaggs said.

The classic lineup began to unravel in early 1948 as Flatt and Scruggs struck out on their own. But the foundation was laid for artists like the Stanley Brothers, Jim and Jesse, the Osborne Brothers and many others.

"I'm sure Bill was kind of looking for a new sound. He had had accordion at one time and electric guitar" before Scruggs came aboard, said McCoury, a member of Monroe's band in the early '60s. "But I think it all came about accidentally. I don't think he had a certain thing in mind."

Monroe, who was a friend and a mentor to Skaggs, continued to perform and record until his death in 1996. He's regarded as the father of bluegrass and is one of only a handful of artists enshrined in both the country and the rock halls of fame.

"I think those two years that Lester and Earl were in the band really solidified a sound that has stood the test of time," Skaggs said. "Here we are 60 some years later and playing the same style of music. We've added to it, but I don't feel like we've taken anything away from it."

Besides honoring the early pioneers, Skaggs' new album helps educate younger fans about the genre's roots.

"I feel like some of the followers of the fathers of this music need to tell the stories of the fathers," Skaggs said.

Skaggs, 53, certainly qualifies for the role. As a young man, he played in Ralph Stanley's Clinch Mountain Boys, J.D. Crowe's New South and Emmylou Harris' Hot Band before switching to mainstream country and having a slew of hits in the 1980s.

He returned to bluegrass in 1997 and became one of its biggest stars while also managing to straddle genres, most recently recording with gospel group The Whites (a family trio that includes Skaggs' wife, Sharon White) and with rock star Bruce Hornsby.

"He's a multitalented guy," McCoury said. "I met him when he was about 15, and he was playing with Ralph at the time. He can play anything he picks up, and he can play with anybody."

With the Monroe tribute, Skaggs circles back to his youth. When he was only 6, he was called onstage by Monroe to perform with the master. It was a pivotal moment for him, and now he's returned the favor of sorts by calling attention to some of Monroe's most important recordings.

"People talked about him in later years as being a traditionalist, but if you look at history he was really a trendsetter. He took the essence of something old and added something new."

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