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Music Review: Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby

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When I first heard that Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby were collaborating on an album, I thought that was a surprising, yet interesting combination.

Skaggs, a bluegrass virtuoso if ever there was one, is famous for his delicate skill on the strings and quintessential down-home style. Hornsby, on the other hand, is best known for his eloquent piano playing on more poppy adult contemporary favorites, including “The Way It Is” and “Mandolin Rain.”

Blending these two styles, I thought, would yield a unique musical product, which is what piqued my interest in the first place. I was very disappointed when I listened to the album and found that it was nothing more than a bluegrass CD that happened to have a guest musician.

Skaggs’ and Hornsby’s voices are so similar, it’s nearly impossible to tell who is singing and when; it sounds like Skaggs voice throughout. That in itself wouldn’t be so bad, except that the banjo and mandolin are so overpowering, you also cannot hear Hornsby on the piano on most songs.

The album also features a handful of covers, most notably Hornsby’s “Mandolin Rain” and Rick James’ “Superfreak.” Yes, that’s right, a bluegrass version of “Superfreak,” so surprising that it literally freaked me out. Somehow the words “she’s a very freaky girl” coming out of Skaggs’ mouth just seems icky.

Similarly, his minor-key rendition of “Mandolin Rain” takes a song of fond remembrance and makes it almost mournful. Listening to it, I couldn’t help but think that it would’ve fit well on the Cold Mountain soundtrack. It really surprised me that Hornsby not only gave his blessing to this cover, but also played on it. When he and The Nitty Gritty Band did a bluegrass version of his “The Valley Road,” it was bright and really a tribute to Honsby’s original. I can’t say the same for Skaggs’ take.

While the musicianship throughout the CD was excellent, as I would expect it to be from two seasoned pros, I would expected to hear more of each others’ distinctive styles rather than having them blend together so completely. For me, this album was a let-down.

Grade: D+ 

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About Robin Kavanagh

  • Hung Nguyen

    If you’ve followed Bruce’s career since he disbanded the Range, nothing on this album is actually at all surprising. Bruce has always been a bluegrass fan – he specifically teamed up with Ricky because he wanted to make a bluegrass album. Look at the liner notes, and note that Bruce appears the most in the writing credits, and really Bruce is singing about 80% of the album. He’s about to release a jazz album as well.

    Bruce rearranges his own songs all the time in concert, and this is just yet another version of Mandolin Rain he’s done. Night on the Town and Crown of Jewels are also songs he has previously done, and the version of Crown of Jewels on this album is not that different from the original.

    As a big Bruce fan, I love this album as it shows his ability to adapt and play well in yet another style. I lent this album to a friend who doesn’t know a lot of Skaggs or Hornsby, and she loved it and has been telling all her friends about it.

    My $0.02

  • JB

    I’m with Hung on this. It sounds like you approached this review with a preconception of what Bruce Hornsby and Ricky Skaggs are supposed to sound like (and you still have Hornsby back in the ’80’s) as opposed to listening with an open mind. Specifically, you expect ‘Mandolin Rain’ and ‘Superfreak’ to sound like the originals and that’s not the purpose of a cover. And this isn’t even their first collaboration. They did ‘Darlin’ Corey’ on Big Mon, a tribute to Bill Monroe, a few years ago. I suggest you give it another listen, but forget its “Bruce Hornsby” and “Ricky Skaggs”. Close your eyes and just absorb it.

  • musicmom

    I read WAY too many music reviews to admit and rarely comment. But often I’m in shock at how I can hear, and interpret the same piece of art so differently as others. Skaggs took Mandolin Rain, a song by a piano KING, who, after only a couple of measures, you know it’s him, who use strong majors with a few common minors and the usual chords and plays with such command and musicality, that he has earned his PIANO MASTER TITLE. To me, Hornsby speaks of sadness when he hears the Bluegrass music because it reminds him of so much pain and loss of love. Skaggs, who has bluegrass running through his blood, transforms the song with minor and sus chords that are so much more vulnerable than Hornsby’s style, yet he manages to changes the mood of the song entirely, beautifully, and when he hears the band, he feels healed by the music. It strengthens him rather than saddens him. When he goes into the first refrain, his mandolin is so sharp and confident, it sounds like a rainstorm beating down. The mandolin wins. Then he adds the comment, “BLUEGRASS BAND” and the stage comes alive with the precision really I rarely hear in a band other than classic symphonic music – and bluegrass is not my favorite genre. But boy do I respect it and appreciate the talent. I respect Hornsby’s trust letting such a classic hit be totally transformed both melodically and metaphorically…. classy and a winner for listeners who like to compare styles in these wonderful collaborations. Please comment. Am I totally wrong? I don’t own this album, just heard the one song. I’m no musician, I just live for all kinds, any kinds of music.