The Austin Chronicle

Live Shots

Reviewed by Jerry Renshaw, March 16, 2001, Music

Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder

Waterloo Park, Thursday 15

Nothing like Waterloo Park to see otherwise-civilized-looking folks armed with turkey legs and ambling around with them for some fine Henry VII-style dining. Skaggs and the boys, though, soon had those turkey noshers forgetting their snacks like they were yesterday's news. Early on in the set, the always-personable Skaggs announced, "We're not gonna play any songs newer than about 1965 -- got a problem with that?" Evidently, nobody did. For the next hour or so, the audience was treated to a tour of American musical history, mountain-style. Mark O'Connor is just fine, Bela Fleck & the Flecktones are marvelous, David Grisman is wonderful. But their revisionist twist on bluegrass never sounds as passionate or heartfelt next to the purity of Skaggs' abilities. Superlatives fail when discussing his chops; The amazing thing is, the rest of the band (all hailing from the Southeast) can easily keep up with him, especially the incredibly fluid flat-picking of guitarist Clay Hess. The aching authenticity of something like "Mother's Not Dead, She's Only Sleeping," "The Old Home," "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke, and Loud Music," or the Stanley Brothers' "Another Night" goes back not only to the roots of bluegrass, but touches a nerve deep in the past of American culture. "The Walls of Time" paid homage to the music's Scot/Irish heritage, with banjo picker Jimmy Mills picking up a dobro. About the only real departure from Appalachian style was a variant of Spade Cooley's "Oklahoma Stomp," with fiddle player Bobby Hicks leading its effortless swing. Through it all, Skaggs charmed the audience, even picking up a guitar and plunking the chord progression to "Smoke on the Water" just for grins before launching into the chilling "Coal Minin' Man." Back in the hills, back in time, long before TV, the Internet, video games, or even radio, often there was little to do after a hard day's work than to sit around and get really good on your instrument. There weren't any instructional videos, expensive Marshall amps, or guitar classes; there was nothing but determination and time on one's hands to make it happen. That's how Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, Merle Travis, the Osborne Brothers and countless others got so damn good. Thank God there's guys like Ricky Skaggs keeping that alive.

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