Set List Bonus: Ricky Skaggs Opens The CMA Theater
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By Larry Nager
With two nights of performances that drew from the deepest roots of country, bluegrass and gospel, 13-time GRAMMY winner Ricky Skaggs opened the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum's new 800-seat CMA Theater on Nov. 18–19. The occasion marked the museum's 11th annual Artist-in-Residence series, during which honorees serve as headliner, host and "curator" of an intimate music experience, enlisting mentors, contemporaries and protégés to perform. Formerly held at the museum's smaller Ford Theater, the move turned the event from a private gathering to a public concert, and Skaggs' fans responded by packing the house both nights.
Skaggs, who Chet Akins once said "single-handedly" saved country music, created a musical autobiography onstage with music, stories and guests, revisiting a career that began when he was 3, harmonizing with his parents in church. At 59, he's one of the most respected and accomplished singers and musicians in both bluegrass and country. Among his many accomplishments, he appeared on GRAMMY winner Emmylou Harris' 1980 hit album Roses In The Snow, which is said to have inspired a young Alison Krauss.
Harris performed during "Country Boy At Heart" segment on Nov. 18, which reached back to the beginning of recorded country music and featured Harris teaming with Skaggs and producer Brian Ahern for an acoustic performance of "Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn." The evening also featured performances by Skaggs, wife Sharon White and her sister Cheryl, as well as his daughter Molly, with whom he delivered a powerful performance of the Carter Family's "Single Girl, Married Girl." White and Skaggs also teamed for Townes Van Zandt's "If I Needed You," which they performed at their wedding. White's family group, the Whites, were a big part of both nights, with the sisters providing background vocals as well as performing their hits with their dad Buck White.
At the other end of the sonic spectrum was Skaggs' full-tilt country attack as his band Kentucky Thunder "went electric," recreating hits that put Skaggs at the top of the country chart 30 years ago, including the GRAMMY-nominated "Heartbroke" (songwriter Guy Clark was in attendance) and "Highway 40 Blues," the latter of which featured Skaggs trading licks with fellow GRAMMY winner Brad Paisley.
GRAMMY winner Peter Frampton, who performed on Skaggs' 2010 GRAMMY-nominated gospel album Mosaic, displayed his fretboard mastery on "Can't Shake Jesus" with Skaggs and Mosaic co-producer/songwriter Gordon Kennedy. Frampton, Paisley, Kennedy, and Skaggs teamed for the evening's rockabilly-meets-bluegrass finale of Skagg's "Don't Get Above Your Raisin'."
The second night took its name from the 1998 GRAMMY-winning album that heralded Skaggs' return to bluegrass, Bluegrass Rules! The first half featured a tribute to Skaggs' mentor Bill Monroe, beginning with the ancient tones of Irish fiddle master Martin Hayes and guitarist Dennis Cahill and a duet with Skaggs and Del McCoury on the Monroe Brothers' "Sinner You Better Get Ready," to Bill Monroe And His Bluegrass Boys' "Bluegrass Breakdown," which was played hot enough to blister the skin.
The second half opened with Skaggs and the Whites singing the classic gospel song "Children, Go Where I Send Thee," before bringing Kentucky Thunder back for the Whites' take on the Carter Family's "Keep On The Sunny Side." GRAMMY winner Krauss reminisced about how she learned to harmonize by singing along with Skaggs' records, then joined him for the Stanley Brothers' "A Vision Of Mother," followed by a show-stopping performance of the traditional folk hymn "Down To The River To Pray" featuring Skaggs, the Whites and Kentucky Thunder's Paul Brewster and Eddie Faris.
The night shifted dramatically as Bruce Hornsby sat at piano for a segment highlighted by an extended performance of his "The Way It Is," with Skaggs singing lead and Hornsby demonstrating blinding speed and clarity of tone in a piano tour de force. The finale featured Hayes' Irish fiddle, McCoury's lonesome bluegrass, Hornsby on the bluesy "Columbus Stockade Blues," and Krauss and the Whites for "The Storms Are On The Ocean," among many others.
It was a fitting end to an amazing two nights, stuffed to the brim with the many sounds of Skaggs' life.
(Larry Nager is a Nashville-based writer, musician and documentary filmmaker. A proud former Memphian, he is the author of Memphis Beat (St. Martin's Press) and the writer and co-producer of the film Bill Monroe: Father Of Bluegrass Music. He has been a member of the Memphis Chapter for more than 25 years.)