Album Review: Ricky Skaggs — Music to My Ears
One of the elder statesmen of bluegrass, Grammy-winning Skaggs delivers straight-forward bluegrass, Celtic-inflected tunes, mournful country ballads, and gospel-infused songs, even as he continues to experiment with new musical styles, illustrating his playfulness and his musical genius.
“Music to My Ears,” the title track, sounds like an old-time hymn song, with Celtic fiddles skittering behind a call and response litany of verses that praise “the name of the Lord as music to my ears.” Just as the singer cannot live without the name of the Lord ringing in his ears, he also proclaims that the laughter of children and the peace of nations is music to his ears, a music so consuming that he “cannot live without it in this vale of tears.”
In “Loving You Too Well,” Skaggs’ weaves haunting melodies through his signature high lonesome bluegrass style as he laments the loss of a love to another. Compelled to tell his mournful story, the singer tells his lover he’s paying a price not for his lack of love but that “the worst mistake I’ve ever made is loving you too well.” “Blue Night” kicks off the album with piercing fiddle runs and Skaggs’ merry mandolin picking; it’s another signature Skaggs bluegrass number.
The album contains two lovely tributes to two of Skaggs’ mentors, Bill Monroe and Doc Watson. Laying down his mandolin for a moment, Skaggs picks up his guitar for a soulful and deeply felt rendition of “Tennessee Stud,” dedicated to Watson. In the album’s funniest song, “You Can’t Hurt Ham,” Skaggs tells the story of the time that Monroe, hungry late at night on the road, had to have a bite to eat no matter whether the band could find a joint still serving food. He orders a musician to open a greasy sack where there’s a piece of greasy country ham and some moldy biscuits; fry up the meat, Monroe says, because you can’t hurt ham.
Skaggs’ takes a page from Joe South in the pop-inflected, up-tempo reflection on patience and the demands of an impatient world, “What You’re Waiting For.” In words that could have come straight out of South’s “Games People Play,” the singer counsels: “There are great imposters at this masquerade/In places where innocence is up for trade/They’ll tell you what you want to hear/And whisper right in your ear/At the sideshows and freakshows they bide for your souls as you walk into hell with a casual stroll/You can step right up and settle for this but it will cost you more than that/So hold on for what you’re waiting for.” The soulful pop piano, screaming lead guitars at the break, with a plinking mandolin weaving in and out, captures the purity of an innocence that finds itself in a world of seductive choices urging quick decisions; the singer, who’s been to those sideshows, counsels otherwise.
Aptly titled, this album contains songs that will tickle the ears of every Skaggs fan. There are songs here for the fans who love Skaggs’ bluegrass and songs for fans who love it when Skaggs pushes off in new directions, developing new sounds out of the riffs and rhymes of the complex bluegrass in which he is so steeped.
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