Ricky Skaggs made his mark as the first bluegrass artist to successfully cross over to the mainstream country market, blending the style seamlessly with gospel and hard 50s country under a shiny pop surface. Although he’s never entirely abandoned his roots–which include cutting his musical teeth in a duo with Keith Whitley, playing with Ralph Stanley and the Country Gentlemen, and sharpening his arranging and production skills with Emmylou Harris–the new Bluegrass Rules! is his first pure bluegrass recording in 12 years. The album was originally rejected by Atlantic, but the label gave Skaggs permission to release it on his own, which he did by forming the Rounder-distributed Skaggs Family imprint. With his band, Kentucky Thunder, he introduces one new original amid a passel of raucously performed classics by Flatt and Scruggs, Bill Monroe, and the Stanley Brothers. Fiery instrumental passages–including the leader’s head-spinning mandolin playing–break up terrific harmony singing, and Skaggs’s lead vocal bridges the gap between classic high-lonesome nasality and contemporary sweetness. While he earns his living with more commercial efforts, the new album and select concert dates such as this one find him revisiting his past without missing a beat. Saturday, 4 and 8 PM, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, 9501 N. Skokie Blvd., Skokie; 847-673-6300. PETER MARGASAK
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Jim McGuire.