december 2011


If It’s Christmas, It Must Be The Skaggs Family, Twice Over

Chatting with Rick Skaggs about his new Yuletide CD/DVD extravaganza

By David McGee

When it comes to Christmas 2011 Ricky Skaggs is advocating fans double their pleasure and double their fun, and he ain’t talking Juicy Fruit gum.

Six years after the release of the first Skaggs Family Christmas album, a tasty collection of a dozen sacred and secular carols, the whole clan is back with Volume Two of A Skaggs Family Christmas, a beautifully triple-gatefold package containing a 10-song CD of studio and live performances plus an accompanying two hour-twenty minute DVD of the entire Skaggs Family Christmas Show, recorded live in Nashville and featuring Ricky, his wife Sharon White, his children Molly (now 27) and Luke (now 22), niece Rachel Leftwich, plus his in-laws, better known professionally as the Whites (Buck, Sharon and Cheryl) and Ricky’s esteemed band, Kentucky Thunder. Not the least of the CD/DVD release’s virtues is a suggested retail price of $14.99.

From A Skaggs Family Christmas, Volume One, ‘Do You Hear What I Hear,’ lead vocals by Rachel Leftwich, Molly and Luke Skaggs

All the strengths of the first Christmas CD recommend Volume Two, and more. Molly and Luke, especially, stand out. Molly’s haunting piano-and-vocal treatment of John Jacob Niles’s “What Songs Were Sung,” a meditation on the wonder and enduring mysteries surrounding the Holy Birth, is tender and reflective, a spare beauty elevated to a mystical plateau by Molly’s crystalline, Alison Krauss-like cries. Luke, on lead guitar, energizes the proceedings with his spirited instrumental, “Flight to Egypt,” a driving workout bolstered by Andy Leftwich’s eager fiddling, Tom Roady’s propulsive percussion, Mark Fain’s steady bass, Molly’s empathetic piano and a silky backdrop courtesy the Nashville Strings, with Jim Gray conducting. Luke, Molly and Rachel team up on the album’s powerful penultimate number, “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel,” in a reverent, country-tinged arrangement featuring the young ladies in twin lead roles, their voices alternately intertwining and soloing, with Luke’s tenor bolstering the harmony. Concerning the revelation of Christ’s birth to mankind, this version of “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel” effectively concludes the CD as it precedes a closing instrumental coda of “Joy to the World,” a triumphant minute-and-half excerpt by the Nashville Strings.

The Skaggs Family, ‘Little Drummer Boy,’ Molly Skaggs on lead vocal and dulcimer

Elsewhere, Buck, Sharon, Cheryl and Ricky get it going, accompanied only by Ricky’s guitar, on a lively, syncopated treatment of the traditional gospel number “Children Go”; the Whites and the Skaggses, with Tom Roady on percussion and Sheryl and Cheryl doing twin lead parts as Buck crafts mandolin filigrees, offer a majestic “hallelujah”-rich rendition of “Light of the Stable” (Ricky’s fans may recall the song as the title track of Emmylou Harris’s 1979 Skaggs-produced Christmas album); Ricky, Sharon and Cheryl serve up a wondrous a cappella reading of “The First Noel,” stark and moving in the singers’ obvious reverence for the song’s message; with Kentucky Thunder, Ricky opens the festivities by engaging in an exuberant, galloping bluegrass workout on Tex Logan’s classic “Christmas Time’s A Coming,” a Bill Monroe favorite given the upbeat treatment it warrants thanks to some frisky fiddling by Andy Leftwich and the joyous harmonies Ricky fashions with guests Paul Brewster and Darrin Vincent; and with John Gardner (drums), Mark Fain (bass), John Hughy (steel guitar), Sharon (harmony vocals) plus the additon of his own multi-instrumental textures (mandolin, Dan Electro and gut string guitars), Ricky offers a warm country take on Gene “Snowbird” MacLellan’s “Reunion Song,” concerning the redemptive power of faith. On an album rich in affecting harmony singing and powerful conviction on the singers’ parts, the version of “Silent Night,” with Sharon taking the lead and Cheryl supporting her with silky harmonies, all bolstered by a sensitive string chart from Jonathan Surratt for the Jim Gray-conducted Nashville Strings, gives this well-worn favorite fresh meaning. (See David Nelson’s account of the history of “Silent Night” elsewhere in this issue.)

With a cast of thousands (okay, that’s a bit of an overstatement), the performance captured on the DVD is paced with a smart sense of the songs’ dynamics and messages, gives all participants multiple opportunities in the spotlight, and is edited unobtrusively to capture the show’s flow and energy. At 26 songs, it more than doubles the amount of music available on the included CD.

Speaking by phone from his Nashville home shortly before the release of Volume Two, Skaggs said part of his plan was to pick up where Volume One left off. Told that Luke and Molly are especially impressive when their turns come around, he agrees, saying, “They do a fantastic job. Their Crosby, Stills & Nash version of ‘Oh Come Emmanuel’—that’s what Molly, Rachel and Luke call it—just a guitar and three voices--is really stunning. It’s so powerful we had to wait and have them sing it at the encore, because there was nothing to follow it. We didn’t want to come out with ‘Christmas Time’s a-Coming' to follow that.”

Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder perform ‘Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!’ at the Grand Ole Opry. This Christmas evergreen is featured on Volume One of the Skaggs Family Christmas album (2005).

As for Molly’s show stopping rendition of “What Songs Were Sung,” what is Skaggs to do but confirm that, yes, his daughter is “absolutely amazing”? “Her vocal arrangement of that old John Jacob Niles thing is just killer, you know,” he adds. Though he would encourage Luke and Molly to “do a White Stripes or a Civil Wars thing, and just go out as brother and sister, because the two of them together, with all the instruments they play, it would be an incredible show,” he also knows “that’s not where their hearts are at right now.”

As it turns out, Luke is raising money for a missionary trip to Turkey and Dubai “to do some ministry over there,” and Molly “is busy with her ministry over in North Carolina. They’re both just going all the time.”

Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder kick off a Grand Ole Opry appearance with ‘Christmas Time’s A Coming,’ a Tex Logan classic trademarked by Bill Monroe. A new version of this tune, also recorded with Kentucky Thunder, opens A Skaggs Family Christmas, Volume Two. Video posted at YouTube channel of the Grand Ole Opry

Opening with “Christmas Time’s A Coming” is about perfect, given the close relationship Ricky had with Bill Monroe, but the CD and DVD versions are different. The former features Ricky and his band and was recorded for Volume One but didn’t make the cut; the concert opening DVD version spotlights the whole Family troupe getting into the action.

“Me and the band would usually kick off the Christmas show and we would kind of do it the way you hear it on the record,” Skaggs explains. “But for the last year, year and a half, we’ve been bringing the Whites out to sing with us, so when the curtain opens there’s the whole cast right there on the first song. It’s a great way to open the show because it lets the people know what’s coming up—the kids, the Whites and of course Kentucky Thunder and all. We pass it around—Buck takes a verse, then Luke, Molly and Rachel take a verse, so it’s just wonderful to do it live. But the CD version was cut it in the studio, already had it in the can, and we just hated to go back in and have to remix and re-record it. But on the DVD it’s a well-done piece.”

Especially with the inclusion of the DVD, Volume Two of the Skaggs Family Christmas has special meaning for Ricky, as staunch a proponent of the family as anyone in contemporary music.

A beautiful Skaggs Family Christmas moment from 2007: Molly and Luke Skaggs and Rachel Leftwich perform ‘What Child Is This’ at the Grand Ole Opry. Video posted at YouTube channel of the Grand Ole Opry

“This whole DVD thing, it shows the life of the music of Ricky Skaggs, the whole Skaggs family experience,” he says, “especially with the Whites being such an integral part of my spiritual life. They helped me so much, and when my dad and mom passed away Buck became the dad and Patty the mom. How important the Whites have been, and then fruit from our lives, Molly, Luke and Rachel. It’s a great thing.”

Note: A one-hour edit of the Skaggs Family Christmas DVD is airing on the RFD network on December 8. Check your listings for air time.

A Skaggs Family Christmas, Volume Two is available at

Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, ‘Christmas Time’s A Coming.’ Featuring Dale Morris (fiddle), Blake Williams (banjo), Tater Tate (Bass) and Wayne Lewis (guitar).

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