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Sunday, 2 September, 2007 2:15 AM

Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby: Way Out in the Country (CMA)

PHOTO BY JOHN RUSSELL / CMA

Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby relax on Skaggs' tour bus before the "CMT Crossroads" taping.

By Bob Doerschuk
© 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 in music.

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.

"My father-in-law, 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 Hornsby."

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 ground.

"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 little bit."

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: It's music."

On the Web: www.brucehornsby.com, www.skaggsfamilyrecords.com.

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