Bruce Hornsby and Ricky Skaggs Play It Loose

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The first time Ricky Skaggs met Bruce Hornsby at a New York music festival in 1990, the invitation to collaborate onstage was immediately extended.

“Bruce came up and said, ‘Hey, man, if there’s anything out there that we’re playing that you hear, we just love people coming and sitting in,’” Skaggs recalls. So with his fiddle in hand and a banjo player beside him, Skaggs waited for the right moment in Hornsby’s set to jump in.

“We listened to one song and we thought, ‘Well, this would be a good one.’ But we didn’t go out on that one. So he did another one and we thought, ‘Maybe we’ll go out on … ahhh, that kinda took a weird turn. I’m not sure where that one went.’ And finally we found one that we could go out on and play.”

That first jam session has since evolved into a strong musical partnership. Among their most notable efforts are a 2007 episode of CMT Crossroads and the much-admired Big Mon, a 2000 tribute album to Bill Monroe. Along with a tour that’s hitting the Midwest this week, the two friends have reunited yet again for a live album, Cluck Old Hen.

A day before going into tour rehearsals in Nashville, both Grammy-winning musicians dropped by CMT to discuss their latest team effort.

CMT Edge: “How Mountain Girls Can Love” still sounds so fresh on this live album. Is that a pretty common opener when you play together?

Skaggs: Yeah. It just works. I’m telling you, it sets the night for what this show’s gonna be. Just wide open.

Hornsby: One great thing that we do on our shows — you probably do this on your own shows without me, of course — if there’s a curtain, we start with the curtains closed, behind the curtain. We start playing, and then it opens. Oh, wow, what a dramatic moment. It’s hilarious to me.

Skaggs: Yeah, I love it! Just gotta have it. … We ought to have the curtain closed, and then just rip that thing when we start.

I know by the time the curtain comes up, so to speak, you guys have been hanging out for a couple of hours already. What do you do in the afternoon before the show?

Hornsby: Sometimes we’re working on a new thing or something that I screwed up, and I’ll say, “Hey, can we run that? Because I really butchered it last night.”

Skaggs: Yeah, or somebody may go to a wrong key the night before — and “Hey, let’s check that section right there.” Everybody wants to do a good job. Really, as much fun as we have and as loose as it is, we want it to be loose and great.

Hornsby: My bass player and drummer love it when Ricky plays because they love his pocket. They love his groove. Ricky and Chris Thile are my band’s favorite sit-in guests.

What’s your favorite part of playing songs like “Toy Heart” and “Sally Jo”?

Hornsby: I like screwing up on “Toy Heart,” which is what happened that night [the live album was recorded]. That night was a screw-up. You know how it quote-unquote “breaks down,” and I start playing? The song was over, but I don’t realize it, so I kept playing and went like, “Oh, wow, I’m out here on my own. I’m just gonna make something of this.”

Skaggs: What a special moment. To me, that’s so indicative of what this show is. It’s like you can’t really screw up. Even if you didn’t plan it, we all think on our feet and think on our hands. If we don’t get an intro right, it’ll work out right. If we don’t get an ending right, we’ll still work it out.

It sounds like you rehearse, but you don’t over-rehearse.

Hornsby: I have never been guilty of over-rehearsing. I’m really terrible with that.

Skaggs: We’re going to have a long rehearsal tomorrow and work on some new songs. I’ve got new band members since Bruce has been out touring with us. We’ve got a new bass player, a new banjo player, a new harmony singer and a new guitar player. … I’ve got three musicians in my band that are better mandolin players than me. I mean, these guys could take me down arm-wrestling.

Andy [Leftwich, the band’s fiddler] is an incredible mandolin player. Cody [Kilby, the band’s guitarist] is a killer mandolin player. And Justin Moses [the band’s banjo player], I mean, I hear them back there playing, the three mandolins. I gotta work something up where we have an all-mandolin ensemble because even the harmony guy is a good mandolin player.

Hornsby: The level of rhythmic precision with this group is high. It’s very challenging to me on that level to play at these breakneck paces and nail it so clearly, to articulate it so clearly and so precisely. These guys, like the song [“Nashville Cats”] says, “they been playing since they’s babies.” Cody and Andy have been competing against each other since they were toddlers — 6, 7 years old. So a dilettante like myself, I need to step up my game.

I think you’re being modest, but do you like being around musicians that you feel are better players than you?

Skaggs: Yes, I do. I like being around musicians that are better than me. That’s why I have such a great band. That’s the kind of people I hire. I don’t know why they end up coming to this watering hole. Even in my country days, I always had great musicians — great steel players, great electric guitar players, great bass players, great drummers, great piano players.

Hornsby: They come to you because you’re the soul man of the bluegrass world.

Skaggs: They want to be here and they want to stay because what they love about his band is the challenge of getting to work with people like Bruce. Of course, there’s no one we work with like Bruce, who is one of kind.

Hornsby: “Here comes the goofy guy that’s gonna change everything every night.”

Skaggs: “Well, that’s not how we did it yesterday, but hmmmm, let’s just go with it.”

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