A mandolin was more or less the unofficial mascot of the first night of Ricky Skaggs‘ residency at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. First, museum director Kyle Young, then Skaggs himself — the 11th musician to be named artist-in-residence by the institution — extolled the mystical powers of the $5 instrument Skaggs received from his father at the age of 5.
And when Skaggs recounted being hauled onstage by bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe at age 6, he took care to note that the mandolin Monroe placed in his tiny hands that day is now on display in the museum.
But the rare treat was seeing Skaggs — who’s most often led unplugged string bands for the past decade and a-half — once more strap on his Telecaster electric guitar.
The evening was billed as “Country Boy At Heart,” and the museum’s gorgeous, new cylindrical CMA Theater was packed with people nostalgic for the neo-traditional sensibilities Skaggs brought to mainstream country music as a young star. For this occasion, he’d beefed up his bluegrass backing band Kentucky Thunder by substituting electric bass for an upright acoustic instrument and adding steel guitar, keyboards and drums.
Right out of the gate, Skaggs and company spryly shuffled through three honky-tonk numbers from his Epic albums. During “I Don’t Care,” in particular, his singing showed the light-footed, boyish quality so familiar to his longtime fans.
“Well, that’s some country music we used to play back in the ’80s,” he cracked. “Y’all remember that?”
To set up a duet rendition of “If I Needed You,” he and his wife of three decades, Sharon White, reminisced about their wedding and their CMA duo of the year win. Then the rest of the Whites — father Buck and sister Cheryl — joined them to reprise Skaggs’ original recording of the hooky, hard-country boogie “Honey (Open That Door).”
Skaggs’ reference to Webb Pierce‘s earlier version of the song was a reminder of how rooted the former’s material was even at his commercial zenith, a notion echoed by Brad Paisley — a mainstream champion of tradition, in his own way — emerging to guest on “Highway 40 Blues.”
Throughout the night, Skaggs showed himself to be the consummate country showman, nailing the audience’s sentimental sweet spots, taking technical difficulties in stride with garrulous storytelling, slipping in mentions of his new memoir for sale in the lobby.
Skaggs spread his musical attentions more broadly during the second act, starting off with a traditional gospel tune — one he’d once recorded with Tony Rice — sung in tender three-part harmony with Sharon and Cheryl on the lip of the stage.
Then came a thoughtful tribute to those who’d given him his first break on a major country recording, his one-time Hot Band boss Emmylou Harris and her former producer Brian Ahern. Together, they performed Ralph Stanley and Carter Family tunes from Harris’ Roses in the Snow, an album with Skaggs’ contributions all over it.
Skaggs dipped into the pre-bluegrass Carter Family repertoire again for an old-timey duet with his gifted singer-banjoist daughter Molly, then made a stylistic U-turn, bringing songwriter-producer Gordon Kennedy and arena-rocking British guitar slinger Peter Frampton out on stage for impassioned renditions of a couple of burnished contemporary gospel tunes from Mosaic.
No matter who accompanied him, Skaggs had a way of tying it all together, presenting the array of pickers and singers as rightfully belonging in the musical orbit of a country boy. Of Molly, he playfully crowed, “Ain’t nothing like a young woman playing clawhammer.” He declared Frampton’s roaring rock solo “strong as an acre of mowed onions.”
And lest there be any question as to how Skaggs — the multi-talented, trend-transcending, prodigy-turned-next-big-thing-turned-standard-bearer — can make a performance feel so artfully balanced between the downhome and the sophisticated, he closed out the evening with Tele in hand, generously distributing solos among his band and his variously virtuosic guests as he led the way through a Flatt & Scruggs standby that he long ago took to the country Top 20. The title? “Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’.”