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For Ricky Skaggs, playing bluegrass never gets old.

Byline: Paul Denison The Register-Guard

Ricky Skaggs favors music rooted deep in America's past, but lately he's been living in the future.

He recently finished recording a 2005 Christmas album with his wife, Sharon, their kids Molly (21) and Luke (16) and his niece, Rachel Warren (23), hoping that a DVD and TV special will follow.

And now he's making a bluegrass album with Bruce Hornsby, for release in 2006.

"We've been wanting to do this, to do more than just one track together," Skaggs said Monday in a brief telephone interview from Nashville. "His old label didn't want him to do it because it was not pop or mainstream."

But Hornsby has always been fond of bluegrass, an attitude he shared Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead and others with whom he has performed. He's "very adept" at it, Skaggs says.

"Listen to the style of his right hand on 'Valley Road.' It's like a three-finger banjo roll."

Throwing a piano player in with the fiddlers and pickers of Kentucky Thunder "may be kind of edgy for bluegrass," Skaggs admitted, but he's enthusiastic about their collaboration, which will mix Hornsby numbers such as "Mandolin Rain" with very old mountain songs from Kentucky.

Skaggs says he's not sure whether the new record will be picked up by Hornsby's current label, Sony, or by Skaggs Family Records.

"It's nice to have your own studio," Skaggs said.

It sure is.

Skaggs started his own label in 1997 so he could get back to his bluegrass roots when his country music career cooled off, meaning that his records "weren't selling gold and platinum like they once did," he told an interviewer a few years ago.

It seems to have been a good move.

The Skaggs label's first release, "Bluegrass Rules!", broke genre sales records, winning Skaggs his sixth Grammy Award. It also was the International Bluegrass Music Association's album of the year honors.

The second album, "Ancient Tones," also won a Grammy Award. So did the third, "Soldier of the Cross."

In fact, seven albums released by Skaggs Family Records have been nominated for Grammy Awards, including "Big Mon: The Songs of Bill Monroe" (a tribute album featuring Hornsby and other guest artists), "History of the Future," "Live at the Charleston Music Hall" and the latest, "Brand New Strings."

Skaggs himself won a ninth Grammy last year (best country performance for the song "A Simple Life").

Although "Soldier of the Cross" is Skaggs' only all-gospel album, evidence of his Christian faith can be heard (and read, in his liner notes) on the current album.

"Brand New Strings" includes an instrumental titled "1st Corinthians 1:18" because the tune came to Skaggs while he was reading that scriptural passage; "Enjoy the Ride," a musical homily on redemption and self-forgiveness; "Spread a Little Love Around," about "loving your neighbor as ourself"; "Love Does It Every Time," about intimate experiences of God's grace; and Shawn Lane's song about Bill Monroe's bedside conversion, a church-worthy piece titled "Why Did I Wait So Long?" with soulful harmony vocals by Lane and Skaggs.

The musicianship on these tracks is just as high as it is on the others - which is to say, very high - but aficionados who like their bluegrass straight will find it easier to enjoy such songs as "Sally Jo," "Sis' Draper," "Lonesome and Dry as a Bone," the instrumentals "Appalachian Joy" and "Monroe' Dancing," and the slow, sad songs "If I Had It All Again to Do" and "My Father's Son."

"Brand New Strings," by Keith Sewell and Steve Leslie, is the album's title track for good reason. It has the dry humor, the strong harmony and the lickety-split guitar, banjo and mandolin picking and nimble fiddling that bluegrass musicians and fans love.

This one would be a great show-closer for Kentucky Thunder's Eugene show at the Shedd Concert Hall on Thursday. For an encore, they could just play it faster.

Along with Skaggs, who plays guitar, mandolin and banjo, Kentucky Thunder includes Andy Leftwich (fiddle), Paul Brewster (tenor vocals and rhythm guitar), Mark Fain (bass), Jim Mills (banjo), Cody Kilby (lead guitar) and Darrin Vincent (baritone vocals and rhythm guitar).


Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday

Where: Shedd Concert Hall, 285 E. Broadway

Tickets: $35, $40 and $50, 434-7000


Ricky Skaggs has teamed up with Bruce Hornsby for a bluegrass album that's scheduled to be released in 2006.
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Title Annotation:Entertainment
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:May 6, 2005
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