Sunday, 2 September, 2007 2:15 AM
Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby: Way Out in the
BY JOHN RUSSELL / CMA
Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby relax on Skaggs' tour bus before the "CMT
2007 CMA Close Up News Service
They seem like an odd
couple: Ricky Skaggs, dressed to the nines, his tie knotted tightly
over a matching charcoal-colored shirt, hair neatly trimmed, seated
behind a table on his touring bus. And, to his left, here's Bruce
Hornsby, relaxed in jeans and tour jacket, his hair tousled, his
long legs stretching into the aisle. The differences between them
are many, from their physiques to their politics to their preferences
None of that matters,
though, as much as the traits that draw them together. It comes
down to each is a master musician whose work draws deeply from tradition.
And while their tastes vary, from Skaggs' reverence for early American
mountain music to Hornsby's enthusiasm for bebop and more modern
forms of jazz, there is plenty of overlap too. Each has opened to
the other's favorite artists. And judging from their dialog shortly
before a "CMT Crossroads" taping in Franklin, Tenn., it's
difficult to tell who started out liking what.
"Those records by
Bill Evans and Tony Bennett," Skaggs began, referring to two
albums that the innovative pianist and famous crooner cut together
as a duo, "will forever be in my heart. I love them. They just
blow me away. They're flawless. I would suggest those records for
anybody, any musician . ."
"What about that
old-time, down-in-the-dirt music by Dock Boggs and Roscoe Holcomb,"
Hornsby chimed in. "That's just wonderful stuff."
There's something inspirational
about hearing these two, their mantels and walls back home covered
with awards, each a veteran of the business with plenty of stories
to tell, talk about music as if they were kids again, having just
discovered its wonders. That also explains the emotion and the artistry
of the collaborative CD they have issued on Sony BMG/Legacy, not
to mention the simplicity of its title: Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby.
This story goes back
to 1990 when they met at a festival in Horseheads, N.Y. A few years
later, Skaggs brought Hornsby to the Ryman Auditorium for a TNN
taping, "Live at the Ryman," whose other guests included
Bela Fleck and Vince Gill. In 2000, Hornsby accepted another invitation,
to take part in a tribute CD that Skaggs was organizing, Big Mon:
The Songs of Bill Monroe. His contribution was a predictably innovative
interpretation of "Darlin' Corey," which Skaggs picked
as the opening track.
"I'm so glad we
started with that because it set such a high benchmark," Skaggs
said. "There's a bunch of great cuts on that record, but this
one caused it to soar."
"I thought he would
appreciate it if I threw a few Bill Evans chords in there,"
Hornsby chuckled. "But I've actually been involved with this
music since 1989, when I was on volume two of Will the Circle Be
Unbroken with the Dirt Band. Yeah, it pissed off all the purists,
but we also won the bluegrass Grammy for our version of [the Hornsby
song] 'Valley Road.' Then I wrote the title cut to Crown of Jewels
for Randy Scruggs. Pam Tillis cut 'Mandolin Rain.' And even from
my first record, I've always had a strong Country influence."
Raised in the Virginia
countryside and educated at the Berklee School of Music in Boston,
Hornsby unveiled a new sound on his debut album, The Way It Is,
in 1986, built on a foundation of rock rhythm and catchy melody
but invested with a unique combination of jazz phrasing in his solos
and a pastoral sensibility in his harmonies. This last detail, with
its emphasis on evocative chords that leave plenty of room for vocal
lines, is what made it easy for other musicians, whether it's Skaggs,
Grateful Dead icon Jerry Garcia, or jazz saxophone giant Branford
Marsalis, to find places in their future collaborations with Hornsby.
In 2002, Skaggs, as host
of the PBS special "All-Star Bluegrass Celebration," brought
Hornsby back to the Ryman. By now the pianist/singer/songwriter
moved easily within the company of Alison Krauss, Del McCoury, Earl
Scruggs, Ralph Stanley and the other performers. At the same time,
he remained a distinct presence, respectful of this music yet a
step removed from it. It gave Hornsby a perspective unlike any other,
which may be why Skaggs decided the time had come for them to work
more closely together.
Skaggs took the right
approach, asking Hornsby not to adapt to the bluegrass format but
to begin by sending him some examples of the music he was doing
on his own. "I came to appreciate where Bruce comes from,"
Skaggs explained. "He brings along Bill Evans, Bud Powell,
Keith Jarrett and Leon Russell - the guys that influenced him. He
loves bluegrass too, but he never had a chance to experiment with
it on a whole record, from start to finish. That's what caused this
music to grow."
This music, by the way,
is intended to refer not just to the tracks that they laid down
with Kentucky Thunder but also to its anticipated impact on the
wider stage. Setting aside, Hornsby's specific artistry, the very
idea of applying a piano to bluegrass points towards uncharted territory,
though Skaggs insists that Monroe was always open to the possibility.
Buck White, played the piano," he said. "There was an
old piano onstage at the Bean Blossom Festival, and Bill would ask
Buck to sit in and play fiddle tunes with him. He also loved the
stuff that me and my band did on things like 'Uncle Pen' and 'Wheel
Hoss.' He'd always look over and smile. He would have loved Bruce
Of course, Skaggs carried
a piano player not with his bluegrass groups but with his Country
band. In that setting, he assigned a relatively restricted role
to the pianist, which came down to doubling the bass part with his
left hand and avoiding the third note of the chord he played with
his right. With Hornsby, though, the reins were let loose and as
a result, between the two of them, the free accompaniment of jazz
piano and the tight focus of bluegrass find an unprecedented common
"I feel like I'm
creating a new role for the piano in this music," Hornsby said.
"It's whatever I choose to make it, as long as I'm playing
with some sort of taste."
"The thing is, as
we were getting this together, we never once mentioned the word
'radio,'" Skaggs said.
"That's why I could
write things like 'Gulf of Mexico Fishing Boat Blues,' which I think
is the first bluegrass tune in 5/4," Hornsby added, smiling
slyly. "I wanted to fit into this mode but also twist it a
Released on March 20,
Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby, kicks off with "The Dreaded
Spoon," an autobiographical story of youthful ice cream thievery.
"A Night on the Town," also a Hornsby original, invokes
Appalachian storytelling traditions, with a jubilant chorus contrasting
the verses' cautionary tale. Other highlights include "Mandolin
Rain," two traditional arrangements, "Across the Rocky
Mountain" and "Hills of Mexico," and the driving
Skaggs original instrumental "Stubb."
"Really, all we
wanted to do was to make music," Skaggs summed up. "And
that's all we've done. To me, every cut is a masterpiece. Even more
important than that, it's not just bluegrass or jazz or whatever:
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