Ricky Skaggs and his band, Kentucky Thunder, concluded the Springer Mountain Farms Bluegrass Nights summer series at Ryman Auditorium on Thursday night (Aug. 1). The Country Music Hall of Famer and his Grammy Award-winning band closed out the celebration of bluegrass with a bang. Countless changes in instrumentation, guest appearances and storytelling made it a night to remember.
It was a packed house, with guests including Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, James Taylor, in the crowd. The night opened with the band’s rendition of bluegrass classics, including “How Mountain Girls Can Love,” originally by The Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe’s Uncle Pen. Skagg’s admiration for the legendary Monroe was clear in both his words and performances.
“This is the first place people really heard bluegrass music. We’re in a special, hallowed place tonight,” Skaggs beamed, reflecting on Monroe’s determination to create a “unique sound” which would ultimately make him the father of bluegrass. Skaggs himself was deeply influenced by Monroe’s work, having played on television with him at just seven years old.
Skaggs also made clear a great admiration for his parents — a father who could always be found working or at home, and his “Holy Ghost-filled, foot-washing Baptist” mother. In his mother’s memory, he dedicated one of her favorites, “Mother’s Only Sleeping.”
“That’ll bring a tear to a glass eye,” Skaggs remarked at the end of the song.
Several other members of Kentucky Thunder had their turn to dedicate songs and tell stories that were special to them. Paul Brewster (guitar, vocals) took the lead on a rendition of “Kentucky Waltz,” dedicated to his mother. Brewster, much like Skaggs, truly has a voice made for bluegrass, and he navigated into stunning falsetto with ease. The song received a standing ovation. The two also did a duet on “Traveling Down This Lonesome Road.” Their voices complimented one another’s so well, it came as no surprise to hear that they have been singing together for 24 years.
Grammy-nominated fiddler, Mike Barnett, got toes tapping with his song “Old Barnes” just before intermission. Following the brief break, the band returned with even more musicians, including electric guitars, a steel guitar and drums. This time around, they played a more country-oriented set.
Sharon White Skaggs joined her husband on stage to sing “When I’m Good and Gone” and “Love Can’t Ever Get Better Than This.” The audience couldn’t help but wonder if maybe love really couldn’t get better than that after watching the pair’s onstage chemistry.
Skaggs mentioned that sometimes he likes to bring country to his bluegrass covers but, in listening to his original country songs, it is clear that he also brings bluegrass to country. No one bridges the two genres as beautifully and seamlessly as he does. When he sings that he is “just a country boy, country boy at heart,” it is clear that it is true. From his tales of growing up in the eastern Kentucky mountains to the way he shreds the mandolin, everything about his performance felt honest and southern at the roots.
After a standing ovation on his closer, “Country Boy,” Skaggs returned with Sharon, Cheryl and Buck White to lead the audience in a hymn. “This place was a church, but it still is. Church is the people,” Skaggs noted, asking the audience to stand and join in “Nothing But The Blood.” The Mother Church was full of gratitude and spirit, but the show was not over yet.
The band closed the evening out with Monroe’s “Rawhide,” which he played at Monroe’s funeral. Skaggs reflected on how many times Monroe himself must have played that very song on the same stage. Something about the memory of legends past being carried out by legends of the present left audience goers with a little touch of Nashville magic.