Brand New Strings

by Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder

Recorded and mixed at Skaggs Place Studios

Produced by Ricky Skaggs

When Lester Flatt’s health began to decline in 1979, he was sure of one thing: All those years, when he was playing Gospel songs with Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs, he had been an unbeliever.  Faith, however, comes by hearing, so, after a life spent resisting the call of Christ, mediated through the ancient tones of the music of his ancestors, Mr. Flatt, like the Ethiopian eunuch, was ready to have his sins washed away.  Down in his hometown of Sparta, Tennessee, his preacher took him out to a familiar creek, where he helped Lester out of his wheelchair and down into the water in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.  “Oh, why did I wait so long?” he began to exclaim as he emerged from the water, weeping at the thought of his new birth here at the end of his life.

Ricky Skaggs, chief among Bill Monroe’s disciples, has been a mandolin and fiddle virtuoso nearly all of his life, having played with Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, and Ralph and Carter Stanley by the age of ten.  Now, at 50, he is devoting himself to spreading both the good news that bluegrass is as good as ever and the Good News of Christ.  Like Flatt, though, Skaggs took a few detours before heading back home.

In the late 70’s, Skaggs felt compelled to leave the old homestead of bluegrass for the bright lights of Nashville.  He toured with Emmylou Harris before embarking on his own stellar career, in which he was named the 1985 CMA entertainer of the year and garnered eight Grammys and numerous number ones for such singles as “Cajun Moon” and “Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown.”  Though it wasn’t bluegrass, it was country with a traditionalist twist, which caused Chet Atkins to say that, in the 1980’s, Ricky Skaggs single-handedly saved country music.  (Las Vegas lounge singer Lee Greenwood had been named CMA male vocalist of the year in 1984.)

By 1996, it was safe to say that Ricky Skaggs had gone places.  But the music of his people was calling him home.  He wanted to record more and more folk tunes, but Epic, his label, wasn’t interested.  So Skaggs did “the best thing I’ve ever done”: He started his own record label and “came out of the wilderness of country music into the promised land of bluegrass.”  (That was well before the bluegrass/newgrass/roots revival that followed the 2000 release of the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?)  Ever since, he’s been tearing through the studio and across the country, recording one fine album after another, including his blazing 2003 offering Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder: Live at the Charleston Music Hall.

Brand New Strings, Skaggs’ latest, is a quieter, more reflective record.  Only once, in the title cut, does it approach the tempo of Live, relying instead on powerful lyrics and haunting melodies to carry the day.  In Strings, Skaggs follows his familiar formula for his bluegrass albums, combining old standards with his own instrumentals and the best work of his songwriting friends who share his philosophy: a deep commitment to native place, a love for home and family life, an enjoyment of the simple things, and faith in the Savior.  (“I’m a sucker for a new song that has that old sound to it.”)

Brand New Strings kicks off with Rusty and Doug Kershaw’s “Sally Jo,” one of Monroe’s favorites.  Rusty Kershaw played guitar on Monroe’s original recording of the song, where he “whipped that guitar like a mule.”  Kentucky Thunder member Cody Kilby, Skaggs’ “gun for hire,” does plenty of his own whipping on this cut, and Jim Mills, a repeat winner of the International Bluegrass Association’s banjo player of the year award, shines here.

The original songs capture, to various degrees, a traditional bluegrass sound, and each one is true to its ethos.  “Sis Draper” (Guy Clark and Shawn Camp) tells of a mythic fiddling enchantress from Arkansas, who sings and plays with magnolias in her hair.  The lyrics are fun, especially against the Cajun-leaning accompaniment.  “Sis Draper is her daddy’s daughter / Plays the fiddle that he bought her / Plays it like her Mammy taught her / She’s a travelin’ Arkansas-yer.”

Even better is “If I Had It All Again to Do,” the first-person account of a man who leaves his old homestead, which was “good enough for my Dad and his daddy, too,” because that’s what boys do nowadays to be successful.  “It’s where seven generations made their living and their life / I would be the first to move away,” he says, which made me think of Skaggs leaving for Nashville and my own grandparents leaving the Ozark hills for work in Illinois.  “I still see Mom and Daddy as they waved me goodbye / And the painful tears running down their face.”  How many old Southerners I have heard express the same sentiment, thinking about their parents’ graves hundreds of miles away, about the creeks and hollers where they fished and hunted, as they look across the ever-increasing megalopolis of Greater Chicagoland.  “I’d sure make a world of changes / If I had it all again to do.”

Included on Brand New Strings is a fuller version of one of my favorites from Skaggs’ country days, a bluegrass number originally recorded for a silly Patrick Swayze movie, Next of Kin, but dropped by the film’s producers.  In “My Father’s Son,” Skaggs captures the pride of rural mountain people who are pleased to be known by their family names, the antidote to “If I Had It All Again to Do.”  “My history is no secret—it’s written in the stones / In the hill beside this river rests my mother’s gentle bones.”  Pride in one’s parents, in one’s kin, is a rare quality these days, and it is refreshing to hear it celebrated: “When they lay me down, remind them / I was just my father’s son.”

The best track on this record is “Why Did I Wait So Long?”—one of those new songs that sounds old.  Inspired by the story of Lester Flatt’s baptism, Skaggs’ friend Shawn Lane has composed a tune reminiscent of the old shape-note Gospel songs so familiar to rural Southern people.  “God’s been with me through troubled times / With hands not seen, He’s guided my way”: words that could have come from Lester Flatt or from Saint Augustine’s Confessions.  “But my foolish pride and worldly things / Kept me from Him until today.”

It’s that foolish pride and those worldly things that destroy real families, a real way of life like that of the old subsistence farmers that Andrew Lytle speaks of in “The Hind Tit,” and the real music that extols kinfolk and roots and lightens the load of life’s hardships.  But Ricky Skaggs is calling us back—back to that real life and back to the Faith.  Those who are blessed to hear this record can sing along with him and Lester Flatt: “Why did I wait so long to answer the call / From the Greatest of All?”  After all, faith comes by hearing.