Skaggs Hosts Royal Court of Bluegrass

If bluegrass rules, as Ricky Skaggs proclaimed more than once Wednesday night (Jan. 16), then the music’s royal court was on hand at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium to tape an upcoming public television special.

As host for the evening, Skaggs opened the four-hour show with a traditional tune, “Shady Grove.” By the end of the night, musicians had explored the nooks and crannies of bluegrass –- and its relationship to country music –- with a mix of contemporary acoustic music (Alison Krauss & Union Station, Nickel Creek ) and more traditional sounds (Ralph Stanley , Skaggs).

Veterans Earl Scruggs and Del McCoury bridged the generations with their sets. Joined by his sons, Randy and Gary Scruggs, and a group of musicians that included Vince Gill , Jerry Douglas , electric guitarist John Jorgenson and drummer Harry Stinson, Scruggs performed songs from his new CD, Earl Scruggs and Friends. As he does on the record, Travis Tritt joined the group for “True Love Never Dies,” and he stuck around to take a banjo break on Scruggs’ Grammy-nominated classic, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”

Also joined by his sons, Ronnie and Rob McCoury, Del McCoury backed Gill on “Crying Holy Unto the Lord” (with Del singing squint-eyed high harmony above Gill’s tenor) and on Gill’s “High Lonesome Sound.” Then the McCourys turned to Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” and finished with a stirring quartet arrangement of Bill Monroe ’s ethereal “Get Down on Your Knees and Pray.”

Skaggs introduced Krauss as “one of the most beautiful voices in bluegrass.” With her band, Union Station, she did the longest set of the night, ranging from the quiet “Ghost in This House” to the Douglas-penned instrumental “Choctaw Hayride.” Bandmember Dan Tyminski’s set-closing “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” had feet stomping resoundingly on the wood floor of the venerable Ryman.

The country artists, revisiting their roots, contributed in numerous places. Skaggs, a former CMA entertainer of the year, has made it clear that his return to bluegrass is a permanent career move. Like Skaggs, Patty Loveless is a Kentucky native with a feel for the style. Her recent album, Mountain Soul, is more a detour, but it made her a welcome guest on the bill. She joined Skaggs and Tritt on Monroe’s “Uncle Pen” (which also inspired foot stomping), teamed with Stanley on “Pretty Polly” and from her album did “Out of Control Raging Fire,” a duet with Tritt, and “Daniel Prayed,” with vocal assists from Skaggs and fiddler Carmella Ramsey.

In addition to his other singing and picking duties, Gill played acoustic bass behind Loveless on “Daniel Prayed” and hammed it up for the audience when they applauded wildly for Loveless. Leaving the stage, Gill hoisted the bass high over his head, proud of his turn on the over-sized instrument.

Tritt not only challenged himself by playing “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” next to Scruggs. He also did Monroe’s “Little Georgia Rose” surrounded by Skaggs and his first-rate Kentucky Thunder band.

Stanley brought the audience to its feet with a reprise of his a cappella performance of the traditional ballad “O Death,” as featured on the award-winning soundtrack O Brother, Where Art Thou? and in the concert film Down From the Mountain, filmed on the same Ryman stage in May 2000.

Nickel Creek , touted by many as the future of bluegrass and acoustic music, did two numbers -– “The Lighthouse’s Tale” and a new song, “Seven Wonders.” Pianist Bruce Hornsby added one, “Darling Corey,” the song he does on Skaggs’ Big Mon tribute to Bill Monroe. (Skaggs announced to the Ryman audience that he and Hornsby will make a full album together.) The evening ended with jam sessions in tribute to Scruggs, Stanley and Monroe.

Terry Lickona, producer of Austin City Limits, and his technical crew captured the evening for public television. The concert will be edited down to an hour-long special to air nationally during March, pledge month on public television stations. Proceeds from Wednesday night’s ticket sales are earmarked for Second Harvest Food Bank.