december 2012

skaggs family christmas

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

By David McGee

Skaggs Family Records

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 returned, in 2011, with Volume Two of A Skaggs Family Christmas, an attractive 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, which, in 2012, is down to $11.99.

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 addition 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.)

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).

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 and would be a bargain, as the saying goes, at twice the price.

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