november 2009

Ricky Skaggs
Skaggs Family Records

Say this about Ricky Skaggs: when he decides to do a solo record and leave his awe-inspiring Kentucky Thunder home, he really does a solo album. On Solo: Songs My Dad Loved, Skaggs plays and overdubs a dozen instruments, all acoustic save for the Danelectro electric bass, and overdubs his own voice when he needs to harmonize with someone. Ricky actually beat Rosanne Cash to market with his album of songs entrusted to him by his father, but it’s still interesting that two major artists have returned in successive months with albums inspired by their families' musical and literal patriarchs. Now, Rosanne’s dad was a bit more famous than Ricky’s guitar playing father, but the lessons both men passed down to their offspring are equally powerful. In Skaggs’s case, the material heavily favors old-time gospel, with a trio of feisty instruments serving to bridge another section of song (one of those instrumentals,”Pickin’ In Caroline,” a galloping banjo instrumental, was penned by Ricky himself, the only new, original number on the album) and maybe to provide a kind of exuberant exhale from the gravitas of the spirituals, which are mostly concerned with escaping the evils of the world in anticipation of a Biblically promised heavenly redemption (a thesis most ardently advanced in Alfred Brumley’s “This World Is Not My Home,” which Skaggs treats with anticipatory eagerness, backing his harmonized vocal with rhythmically pulsating mandolin chording and soloing). He lightens up the proceedings not only with the instrumentals but also with the traditional knee-slapper, “I Had But 50 Cents,” concerning the ravenous, budget-busting appetite of his dance date, which leads to him getting roughed up—“he tore my clothes/he mashed my nose/and he hit me more and more/he gave me a prize of two black eyes/and with me swept the floor”—and learning a painful lesson in the process. The wisdom these songs impart is not always so painful—in Ralph Stanley’s sprightly but foreboding “Little Maggie” the narrator gracefully exits a dead-end relationship by advising his woman to “get you another man,” as Skaggs’s banjo evokes a rustic, backwoods atmosphere suitable to the song’s setting. The treatment of Roy Acuff’s prisoner song, “Branded Wherever I Go,” in which a prisoner nearing his release accepts the stain on his reputation and bids his girl goodbye in a gracious letter expressing gratitude for her enduring love, is most impressive: backing himself on rhythm guitar and adding a swaying fiddle line to the waltz pace, Skaggs sings solo in the verses then harmonizes with himself in the keening, mountain choruses. At the end, the effect is what Ricky must have intended: one man alone with his music, his memories and his spirituality, dad’s spirit aloft, smiling beatifically, well pleased with his son. —David McGee

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024