Dierks Bentley, Dailey and Vincent, Kacey Musgraves, John Conlee, Ricky Skaggs, Terri Clark & The Del McCoury BandCountry
In the Fall of 2010, Dierks Bentley played four shows in four nights in New York City that illustrate just how unique he is among contemporary country music artists. First, Dierks the multi-platinum arena headliner played his hits at the Bowery Ballroom. Then Dierks the bluegrass student and devotee performed with the Del McCoury Band, and after that it was a songwriter’s night with fellow Music Row tunesmiths and a show with Chris Thile’s experimental Punch Brothers.
Probably no other artist on country radio in the past ten years could manage this kind of range and versatility. Especially when one considers the broader record. He’s had eight No. 1 singles and written every one of them. He’s performed at Lollapalooza, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Bonnaroo and the CMA Music Festival, tailoring his sets to each. His instantly recognizable voice and acoustic/electric hybrid sound have propelled him to membership in the Grand Ole Opry and, in 2011, a performance for the President at the White House. All made possible by his devotion to developing all sides of his musicianship.
Dierks has embraced musical diversity in his recording career as well, as his new album Home demonstrates. The project plunges him back into the country mainstream after a successful sojourn in bluegrass and roots music with the acclaimed and Grammy-nominated Up On The Ridge album. Moreover, working with some of Nashville’s most innovative studio musicians, Home finds Dierks singing over some new sonic textures and, for the first time, interpreting a few songs that he didn’t write himself.
“I definitely stepped away from the commercial country world for a little while,” says Dierks, noting that his last such album, Feel That Fire, album came out in early 2009. “That seems like a really long time ago. So this record feels fresh. It doesn’t feel like a continuation of any other project or series of recordings.”
But if there’s newness, there’s also a distinct familiarity about how Dierks and his music are connecting with fans. This sixth album of his Capitol Records Nashville career produced a No. 1 hit even before its release. That album-opening song, “Am I The Only One,” is a rallying cry to the fun-loving Dierks army. And it sets a tone - a good-time song kicking off a good-time record. Fans have already been enjoying tunes like “5-1-5-0” and “Diamonds Make Babies” in shows. The recorded versions will no doubt be spilling out of car windows as the weather warms up in 2012.
Home’s title track gives the mostly light-hearted album a vital, spiritual anchor. The song expresses pride and patriotism without sentimentality or illusions. It unflinchingly speaks of America’s “scars” and her tensions while illuminating those as sources of strength. The writing session took place just four days after the shooting in Tucson, AZ (Dierks’s home state), which took six lives and injured Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. That tragedy did not inspire the song by any means, but it did cast a shadow and influence Dierks and his co-writers, once some opening lines popped out that seemed to speak to the vitality of being an American in these challenging times.
“It’s really hard to write a patriotic song,” confesses Dierks. “But you want to. It’s something I think about all the time. I love the history of country music and I love the history of our country.” He seems to have pulled it off. The song impressed critics and earned a call from National Public Radio. Dierks was able to tell that audience that the aim was “to be inspiring and hopeful, but also address the realities of what's going on.” Elsewhere on radio, country stations embraced the risky single, despite its departures from any flag-waving formula.
The rest of the project is divided evenly between songs Dierks co-wrote and those he found on an unprecedented song hunt. From the former category we hear “The Woods,” an homage to another side of home, the privacy afforded by those little-known and mysterious backroads and fire circles where friends gather and rites of passage take place. Dierks also co-wrote “Breathe You In,” a pure act of romance and sonic seduction that continues the tone set by the multi-week chartopper “Come A Little Closer” a few years ago. And closing the album, Dierks and Jim Beavers conceived “Thinking Of You,” a connecting, reassuring song that comes honestly from a man who’s away from his family more than he’d like. Daughter Evie makes a brief guest appearance at the end, singing the record’s appropriate final words: “Daddy’s home.”
On the song scouting side, Dierks “reached out to the publishers and let it be known that we were looking for great songs. It didn’t matter where it came from and who wrote it – how big the name or little the name. We were just searching for as many songs to listen to as possible,” he says.
The results are rich. “Diamonds Make Babies” is a country cranker, bristling with electric guitar and a great beat. But the true hook is the lyric, a wry and worldly-wise bit of advice to an eager suitor who thinks he’s ready to get down on one knee and offer the stone. Dierks also throws his vocal power up to “In My Head,” which explores the fine line between love and obsession against a driving, pulsing track. And Dierks reaches back to the influence of one of his favorite musicians – Jamie Hartford – in recording “When You Gonna Come Around.” The slow-dance of a song is a duet with the wonderful Karen Fairchild of Little Big Town and offers some of the most organic textures and honest vocals on the album.
Dierks Bentley’s career in country music could be taught in music business classes because of its rare balance of commercial success and artistic breadth. Most young Nashville newcomers who gravitate to the Station Inn and the city’s bluegrass heritage are not the ones who wind up on arena stages. The city’s not programmed that way, even if it should be. But Dierks made some savvy choices, soaking up sound and wisdom on Tuesday night bluegrass shows and on Wednesday nights on Lower Broadway with the twanging, electrifying Jamie Hartford Band. In those same days, his day job at The Nashville Network’s tape vault gave him access to a library of classic country music performances, which he soaked up like a sponge.
Under these many influences, he wrote and recorded songs that honored the past and the heritage while saying something fresh. Early songs like “I Wish It Would Break” and “Bartenders, Barstools and Barmaids” suggested this was a writer/artist who could add something to the country tradition while speaking a contemporary language. That promise was fulfilled upon teaming up with Capitol with the shocking No. 1 debut “What Was I Thinkin’?” It continued with indelible hits, including “Settle For A Slowdown” and “Every Mile A Memory.”
The tone for Dierks’s career was truly set in 2005. He won the CMA’s Horizon Award for most exceptional emerging artist. And his passion for and stewardship of classic country music earned him membership in the Grand Ole Opry, where he was the third youngest artist ever to be inducted. The first Grammy Award nominations came in 2007 and they quickly became routine. Through the critically acclaimed Up On The Ridge album, he’s earned ten Grammy nods. And throughout, Dierks has pursued a broad-based strategy on the road, juggling arena dates supporting George Strait with club and college shows and now balancing headliner status in country music settings with gritty, jammy tours of rock venues.
“I walk a different path,” Dierks says. “Because of my love of acoustic music, I have opportunities to do different musical things. It’s not just one type of show, which I really think would be a lot easier!” Reflecting on a career that’s sent him from the bars of Lower Broadway to the top of country music, Dierks is a mix of amazement, gratitude and determination. “I don’t know what the next ten years holds but I think I’ve put myself in a position where I can satisfy all of the different things that I love about music.”
Throughout this journey (and critical to it), Dierks has sought out and made use of technologies that could help erase the distance between himself and his fans. The website that went up before the release of Home is perhaps the most audacious expression of that yet. The album’s cover is rendered as a mosaic of miniscule images farmed form Dierks’s nearly 200,000 Twitter followers. Drag over it, and the faces pop out in a magnifier. Click on any tile, and up pops what they’ve been saying – to Dierks and each other. It’s like a microcosm of everything Dierks has cultivated in his fan base: connectivity and immediacy.
He’s done things his own way, satisfied his own muses and done all he can do to bring all kinds of fans along with him. There’s every reason to think they’ll follow him Home too.
Dailey and Vincent
Ashville NC | Country
The most eagerly-anticipated bluegrass debut in recent memory, Dailey & Vincent area a powerful ensemble steeped in bluegrass and country music traditions, but blessed with the drive, talent, and charisma to assert those timeless values proudly onto today's stage. Even before one note of their stunning debut record had been heard, Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent earned a standing ovation at the 2007 International Bluegrass Music Association convention and were booked for more than 100 shows. Now that the album is here, the advance accolades are completely understandable. This is music that can stand side by side with any of the most revered bluegrass discs ever made.
Co-leaders Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent have already had a profound impact on much of the best modern bluegrass via their contributions to such estimable performers as Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, and Rhonda Vincent & The Rage. The decision to join forces was not taken lightly, as they both held comfortable positions within premier bluegrass bands – Dailey as lead and tenor singer for nine years with Lawson, Vincent as harmony vocalist and multi-instrumentalist with Skaggs. “But when I first heard Jamie sing,” Darrin Vincent recalls, “it absolutely brought me out of my seat. I said, ’That is somebody I need to know.’”
Vincent’s initial instincts were confirmed the instant that he and Dailey sang together. “When I first heard our voices blend, I said, ’There’s something special about that,’” Vincent continues. “It was like, ’OK, we’ve got to pursue this.’ Then I looked around, and Sonny stopped playing in The Osborne Brothers. Jim [McReynolds] from Jim & Jesse passed away. All of a sudden, there weren’t any duos in bluegrass anymore. I thought, ’This is going to be a lost thing if we don’t form a duo.’ It just made sense.”
Dailey agrees, adding that when he met Darrin six years ago, he knew immediately that he wanted to take his next professional steps with him. In 2003, the two began talking seriously about becoming a team.
“I was happy – I had no complaints,” says Jamie of his nine years in Quicksilver. “But I knew probably after being with Doyle three years that eventually I would want to step away, in order for me to fulfill what was in my heart and to get to do everything I wanted to do musically.”
“We’ve been praying about this for about four years,” Darrin comments, “because we were making sure that it’s the right choice. He (Jamie) was making really good money and doing great with Doyle. I’ve been having a ball with Ricky. With all the awards that we’ve won and all the wonderful opportunities that have come along with Ricky, it really didn’t make sense to quit.” But in 2004, Darrin and Jamie recorded “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem” as a duet for a bluegrass Christmas compilation album. The response was explosive.
“When we got the response we did off of ’Beautiful Star,’ it was overwhelming,” recalls Jamie. “It just blew my mind. That’s what brought forward the idea that we needed to do our own thing.”
“Their own thing” positively bursts from the speakers from the first notes of their self-titled Rounder debut, Dailey & Vincent, released in January of 2008. The working-man’s laments “Sweet Carrie” and “Poor Boy Workin’ Blues” are vintage-sounding, rapid-fire bluegrass romps. Jamie’s tenor lead vocals on “I Believe” and “Take Me Back and Leave Me There” are high, lonesome bluegrass singing at its purest. Darrin’s upbeat lead vocals on “Don’t You Call My Name,” “Cumberland River,” and “Music of the Mountains” sound steeped in tradition.
The harmonies in “River of Time” and “Place on Calvary” will send shivers up the spine of anyone who loves the classic overtones that only great bluegrass voices can produce. “More than a Name on a Wall” sounds vintage because it is – the song was a 1989 country hit for The Statler Brothers. And as if to remind us that we are in the presence of classic talents, “My Savior Walks with Me Today” and the extraordinary performance of Gillian Welch and David Rawling’s “By the Mark” are performed in traditional, mandolin-guitar, brother-duet fashion.
Indeed, their voices blend with an uncanny, almost familial consonance, reflecting the dedication and mutual respect behind their partnership. “I get along with Darrin like family,” Jamie explains. “For six years, we’ve been working on different projects. But we’ve talked to each other on the phone just about every day all during those six years.”
“I threw songs at him, he threw songs at me,” Darrin remembers, looking back at the formative stages of their collaboration. “We went for timeless things, things we wouldn’t mind singing from now on.”
Darrin’s sister, bluegrass star Rhonda Vincent, has her own studio. Darrin asked her if he and Jamie could use it. The exceptional blend of their voices on songs like “By the Mark” captivated Rhonda and everyone else who heard the sound. Soon they were the most talked about new bluegrass band on the circuit – well before most fans heard any music at all. Pop pianist and songwriter (and bluegrass fan) Bruce Hornsby observed that “Their name is on the lips of everyone in the know, as far as I'm concerned.”
Like most overnight sensations, however, Dailey and Vincent are two men who have paid their dues many times over. Born December 27, 1969, Darrin Vincent first gained notice as a six-year-old tyke in his family’s band, The Sally Mountain Show, in Missouri. In the 1980s, he was in The Rage, the band led by his celebrated sister Rhonda Vincent. He continues to co-produce her acclaimed albums with her to this day. From 1990 through 1997 he backed John Hartford. In April 1997 he joined Ricky Skaggs’ award-winning band, Kentucky Thunder. He is proficient on guitar, bass, and mandolin and is highly regarded for his harmony-singing talent.
“I’m kind of a fish out of water,” says Darrin. “I’ve been behind people my whole life – my sister, John Hartford, Ricky. I’ve never taken front and center stage. Not even one time. I tell you, when I sang ’Cumberland River’ at the IBMA convention, I was scared out of my mind. It was extremely, excruciatingly scary.”
Jamie Dailey, on the other hand, is noted as a lead singer. But forming this duo was a big step for him as well. Born June 9, 1975, he was plucked from obscurity by Doyle Lawson to become the tenor lead vocalist in the much-awarded Quicksilver.
“People would ask me when I was a teenager if I would ever want to do this for a living,” Jamie recalls. “I said, ’Absolutely not. I would hate that. I never want to be on the road.’ I didn’t think I wanted to travel. Around that time, when I was 16, I heard Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver. When I heard Doyle for the first time, it changed. I was like, ’That’s what I want to do.’ And then, in August of 1998, he called.”
Having heard of Jamie’s talent, Doyle called to inquire whether the high-singing youngster would like to audition. Jamie graduated instantly from singing in local Tennessee bluegrass groups to playing bass and guitar and singing lead and harmony vocals in one of the most famous bluegrass bands in America.
Taking with them the lessons they’ve learned from their former employers, their friends, and their families, Jamie and Darrin produced Dailey & Vincent themselves. With pride, they included on the sessions their band members Jeff Parker (mandolin, harmony vocals) and Joe Dean (banjo, bass vocals). Adam Haynes has since been added on fiddle. The result is twelve brilliant performances from two men who sound born to sing together, delivered with a thrilling blend of clarity, precision, and soul. Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent have given their lives to bluegrass, to both the traditions and the possibilities that it offers, and now they’ve made the album of their lives. Is it possible to be both classic and brand new? Meet Dailey & Vincent.
Golden TX | Country
After listening to Same Trailer Different Park, the Nashville-based singer-songwriter’s first album for Mercury Records, it’s clear that this is a girl who has something to say. A true language artist, Kacey nimbly spins webs of words to create the quirky puns, shrewd metaphors, and steely ironies that fill the record.
The fact that she executes these lingual exercises in a clear, unaffected voice makes the ride all the more fun.
“I love words,” Kacey says. “I love how intricate they can get. Even in simple conversation, I like it when language is colorful.” This appreciation for wordplay shines in songs like “Silver Lining,” a sunnyside-up ode to positive thinking packed full of commonplace idioms that she’s given clever tweaks . Take the bridge, for example: If you wanna find the honey/You can’t be scared of the bees/If you want to see the forest/You’re gonna have to look past the trees. “When I was in school, one of my favorite subjects was always creative writing,” she admits. Of course it was.
It’s worth noting that at age 24, school isn’t that distant of a memory for Kacey. You’d never know that from her lyrics, though, which are wise beyond her years and read as if they were written by someone who has seen dozens more birthdays – and nursed at least that many broken hearts. Take the opening lines of “Stupid,” in which she personifies love as an exhausting masochist: Plays you like a fiddle/Shakes you like a rattle/Takes away your gun/And sends you into battle.
Love isn’t the only subject matter in Kacey’s songwriting repertoire: she’s a whiz at working pop culture references into her lyrics. On the album, recollections of kitchsy conversations between smack-talking Waffle House third-shifters (“Blowin’ Smoke”) bump up against campy communiqués from cross-country road trips in the family trailer (“My House”). It’s a testament to Kacey’s natural songwriting ability that these songs sound clever instead of cutesy. In fact, she can get downright bawdy when the situation calls for it.
On “Follow Your Arrow,” she points out the hypocrisies that society imposes on even the most conservative among us (If you save yourself for marriage you’re a bore/If you don’t save yourself for marriage you’re a horr...ible person) which she balances with a chorus that preaches throwing caution and propriety to the wind: (Make lots of noise/Kiss lots of boys/Or kiss lots of girls if that’s something your into/When the straight and narrow gets a little too straight/Roll up a joint/Or don’t/Follow your arrow wherever it points.) Her message is clear: Be yourself and be happy. Kacey grew up in Golden, Texas, a town of 600 about 80 miles east of Dallas that Kacey admits is “kind of out in the middle of nowhere.” She grew up in a household that was creative, though not necessarily musical. Kacey’s mother is a visual artist; together, her parents run a print shop in nearby Mineola – “a little mom-and-pop Kinko’s kind of thing.”
Music came naturally to Kacey, a precocious kid who wrote her first song well before her elementary school graduation. (“It was called ’Notice Me,’” she remembers. “I can’t help but wonder now what the hell a nine-year-old would’ve had to write about!”) Kacey made her public singing debut at church when she was around eight years old. From there, she hit the regional opry circuit. “In Texas, every few towns have an opry house,” she explains. “Performers come up on stage and sing old country songs with a live band. I did that every weekend. It got me familiar with being in front of people and working with musicians.”
She learned to play music first on the mandolin, and at age 12 started taking guitar lessons from a local musician named John DeFoore. It was an experience that Kacey describes as “one of the most important things that ever happened to me. He could tell early on that I wasn't the kind of student who was going to go home and shred scales, so he taught me chords and encouraged me to write. My homework every week would be to write a song. I'd bring it back to him the next week and he would critique it.”
“When I first started writing my own songs, they were pretty bad,” she admits. “I hadn’t found my own voice yet. But it made me appreciate the creative process, and it made me better. I learned not to be scared to just throw an idea out there. I had no clue how useful this would be to me when I moved to Nashville and signed a publishing deal. My ’homework’ was essentially the same: write songs, bring them in, put them on tape and then have them critiqued. It’s the exact same thing John had me do.”
She played out through high school; when she graduated, her parents and grandparents helped fund her first record. Then at 18, with a self-released album under her belt, she moved to Austin. Not long after that, Kacey was chosen to compete on Nashville Star. The show was a bust (she finished seventh), but it introduced her to Nashville. The atmosphere and creative community grew on her. A couple of years later in 2008, Kacey left Austin for Music City, to fully pursue songwriting.
To make money, she sang on other artists’ demos. The work allowed her to pay the bills and introduced the industry to her voice and songs. “I went around to all the publishing companies with little EP type things,” she says. “I was, like, ’Hey, you might need a new voice for demos…and also, these happen to be my songs.’” Kacey soon had a publishing deal with Warner/Chappell. “I developed a real passion for the construction of songs and probably wrote a couple hundred during that time, putting aside the ones that felt the most like me.”
There was some early label interest, and Kacey was booked on a few sessions with some well-known producers but it wasn’t really her thing. “What we did sounded like them, not me,” she explains. “It just wasn’t the right time yet. If you only get one shot to say something, it better be exactly what you want to say from the beginning, you know?” She stepped back. “I spent time developing my own mindset, writing more songs and honing in on how I wanted to sound. As that became more apparent, I ran with it.”
During this formidable time, Kacey met Luke Laird and Shane McAnally, two like-minded writers who quickly became her good friends and later co-producers on Same Trailer Different Park. By 2011, the three had laid the foundation for what would become Kacey’s debut. With McAnally and Laird as her co-pilots, Kacey cut four tracks and shopped them around. Several labels were interested; she chose Lost Highway, which is now defunct. “I'm sad it’s not around anymore,” she says. “When I met (founder) Luke Lewis, he told me, ’I dig what you do. I'll never try to get you to change what you're doing. Even if it fails, you’ll know that at least you got to do what you wanted.’ That spoke volumes to me.”
That winter, Kacey and some of her favorite co-writers, a group that includes Josh Osborne and Brandy Clark, went on a writing retreat in desolate Strawn, Texas. There, reminders of recent wildfires set the scene and somber mood for the record’s first single, “Merry Go ’Round.” “It was really creepy looking out there,” Kacey remembers. “All the trees were charred for miles and out in the middle was this huge house that barely escaped the fires. That was where a lot of the songs on this record were born.”
Kacey, who co-wrote every song on the album, enjoys a collaborative songwriting process. “When a co-write is going well, and all brains are working in the right way, it's like a good volley in a volleyball game - boom, boom, boom, boom,” she says. “’Merry Go Round’ was written in a few hours. It went really fast.” The lyrics to the song, which boasts a chorus that goes Mama’s hooked on Mary Kay/ Brother’s hooked on Mary Jane/ And Daddy’s hooked on Mary two doors down, came from a conversation the writers had about the uneasy complacency and day-in deceptions that take place in even the most placid-seeming communities. “We started talking about how towns have secrets and how people everywhere are guilty of filling their parent’s expectations, settling, and never leaving their comfort zones,” Kacey says.
The retreat over, back in Nashville, Kacey had the job of culling through the new songs, which she added to the stash she’d been compiling during her time at Warner. “I had a ton of songs to choose from,” she admits. “I narrowed them down to about 30, and those down to 15, which we cut.” Tracking for the album began in December of 2011 at the historic RCA Studio A and by spring, the album was nearly complete.
Kacey spent the summer of 2012 touring. “I opened some shows for Willie Nelson in Texas,” she says. “Down there, that’s like Jesus coming back, you know? It was amazing.” In the fall, she did a stint in the U.S. with Alison Krauss before heading to Europe with Lady Antebellum. She returned in time for the September 10th release of “Merry Go ’Round.” It was a hit – and a big one at that.
“Merry Go ’Round” garnered quick airplay and critical acclaim from the likes of Rolling Stone (the magazine later placed the song in its vaunted list of the top 50 singles of the year); NPR, which named her their 2012 Best New Artist (all genre); and Slate, where the headline above a rave review of Kacey’s work read “Is This the Future of Country Music?” Billboard took a different track, looking to the past to qualify its praise: “Had Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton arrived on the scene in 2012 instead of the 1960s, some of their compositions could very well have ended up sounding like this.”
Kacey is, of course, honored by the comparison. “I’m really inspired by both of them,” she says, adding that other favorites include Patti Griffin and John Prine. “I like anyone with something to say. Loretta was writing stuff that was pretty ahead of its time, like with ’The Pill’ and ’Rated ’X.’ She pushed a lot of buttons and I love that.”
In 2013, Kacey will hit the road to promote Same Trailer Different Park, first as a special guest on Little Big Town’s “The Tornado Tour,” and then as an opener on Kenny Chesney’s “No Shoes Nation” tour this spring and summer.
“I’m just stoked that I get to wake up every day and do what I really love,” she says. “As long as it lasts, I'm grateful.”
Fort Worth TX | Country
One of the most respected vocalists to emerge during the urban cowboy era, John Conlee was known for his superb taste in material and his distinctively melancholy voice. Conlee was born and raised on a tobacco farm in Versailles, KY, in 1946, and took up the guitar as a child, performing on local radio at age ten. He went on to sing with the town barbershop chorus, but didn't initially pursue music as a career, instead becoming a licensed mortician. He also worked as a disc jockey at numerous area radio stations, and made important industry connections via that area when he moved to Nashville in 1971. Five years later, Conlee's demo tape got him a contract with ABC. He released a few singles, but didn't find acceptance until 1978's "Rose Colored Glasses," a song he'd co-written with a newsman at his radio station, rocketed into the country Top Five. Conlee spent the next decade or so scoring hit after hit, nearly all of them helmed by producer Bud Logan. He had two number ones in 1979 alone -- "Lady Lay Down" and "Backside of Thirty" -- and four number two hits through 1981, which included "Before My Time," "Friday Night Blues," "She Can't Say That Anymore," and "Miss Emily's Picture." Conlee returned to the top of the charts three times over 1983-1984 with "Common Man," "I'm Only in It for the Love," and "In My Eyes," and had his last number one in 1986 with "Got My Heart Set on You." All told, Conlee made the Top Ten 19 times through 1987, when he moved from MCA to Columbia and reached the Top Five with "Domestic Life." Never much for touring, Conlee subsequently curtailed his recording activities as well, instead devoting his time to charity work (often on behalf of American farmers), raising his family, and running his own farm outside Nashville.
Cordell KY | Country
A life full of music is the story of Ricky Skaggs. By age twenty-one, he was already considered a “recognized master” of one of America’s most demanding art forms, but his career took him in other directions, catapulting him to popularity and success in the mainstream of country music. His life’s path has taken him to various musical genres, from where it all began in bluegrass music, to striking out on new musical journeys, while still leaving his musical roots intact.
The year 2012 marks the 53rd year since Ricky struck his first chords on a mandolin, and this 14-time Grammy Award winner continues to do his part to lead the recent roots revival in music. With 12 consecutive Grammy-nominated classics behind him, all from his own Skaggs Family Records label (Bluegrass Rules! in 1998, Ancient Tones in 1999, History of the Future in 2001, Soldier of the Cross, Live at the Charleston Music Hall, and Big Mon: The Songs of Bill Monroe in 2003, Brand New Strings in 2005, Instrumentals in 2007, Salt of the Earth with The Whites in 2008, Honoring the Fathers of Bluegrass: Tribute to 1946 and 1947 in 2009 and Ricky Skaggs Solo: Songs My Dad Loved along with Mosaic in 2010), the diverse and masterful tones made by the gifted Skaggs come from a life dedicated to playing music that is both fed by the soul and felt by the heart.
Ricky was born on July 18, 1954 in Cordell, Kentucky, and received his first mandolin at the age of five after his father, Hobert, heard him harmonizing with his mother from across the house as he played with his toys. Two weeks after teaching him the G, C and D chords, Hobert returned from working out of town shocked to see his young son making chord changes and singing along. He soon earned a reputation among the locals in his community. When the legendary Bill Monroe came to Martha, Kentucky for a performance, the crowd wouldn’t let up until “Little Ricky Skaggs” got up to play. The father of bluegrass called six-year-old Skaggs up and placed his own mandolin around his neck, adjusting the strap to fit his small frame. No one could have imagined what a defining moment that would be in the life of the young prodigy. By age seven, Skaggs had made his Grand Ole Opry debut and performed with bluegrass legends Flatt & Scruggs on their popular syndicated television show, for which he earned his first paycheck for a musical performance.
In 1971, he entered the world of professional music full-time with his friend, the late country singer, Keith Whitley, when the two young musicians were invited to join the band of bluegrass patriarch Ralph Stanley. Ricky soon began to build a reputation for creativity and excitement through live appearances and recordings with acts such as J.D. Crowe & the New South. He performed on the band’s 1975 debut album for Rounder Records, which is widely regarded as one of the most influential bluegrass albums ever made. A stint as a bandleader with Boone Creek followed, bringing the challenges of leadership while giving him further recording and performing experience.
In the late 1970’s, Ricky turned his attention to country music. Though still in his 20’s, the wealth of experience and talent he possessed served him well, first as a member of Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band and later as an individual recording artist on his own. With the release of Waitin’ for the Sun to Shine in 1981, Skaggs reached the top of the country charts and remained there throughout most of the 1980’s, resulting in a total of 12 #1 hits. In 1982, he became a member of the Grand Ole Opry, the youngest to ever be inducted at that time. As his popularity soared, he garnered eight awards from the Country Music Association (CMA), including “Entertainer of the Year” in 1985, four Grammy Awards and dozens of other honors. These achievements also placed him front and center in the neo-traditionalist movement, bringing renewed vitality and prominence to a sound that had been somewhat subdued by the commercialization of the ’Urban Cowboy’ fad. Renowned guitarist and producer, Chet Atkins, even credited Skaggs with “single-handedly” saving country music.
In 1997, after Ricky’s then-current recording contract was coming to an end, he made the decision to establish his own record label – Skaggs Family Records. Since then, Skaggs and his band Kentucky Thunder have released an amazing 12 consecutive Grammy-nominated classics (8 of which went on to earn the revered award) while also opening the label to a variety of other musical artists, all the time keeping emphasis on bluegrass and other forms of roots music. Since then, Ricky and Skaggs Family Records have had the privilege of working with many musical talents, including the Del McCoury Band, Jerry and Tammy Sullivan, Blue Highway, The Whites, Mountain Heart, Melonie Cannon, Ryan Holladay, Keith Sewell, Cherryholmes and Cadillac Sky.
Ricky’s first release for Skaggs Family Records, Bluegrass Rules!, set a new standard for bluegrass, breaking new sales records in the genre, winning Skaggs his sixth Grammy Award and earning the International Bluegrass Music Association’s (IBMA) Album of the Year Award. In 1999, his second all-bluegrass album, Ancient Tones, won a Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album – his second consecutive Grammy in that same category. Just one year later, Ricky won his eighth Grammy Award in the Best Southern, Country or Bluegrass Gospel Album category for Soldier of the Cross, his first all-gospel project with his band Kentucky Thunder.
Ricky made further progress with the release of his fourth bluegrass album in 2000, Big Mon: The Songs of Bill Monroe, a project which featured an all-star cast of musicians ranging from Dolly Parton, Patty Loveless and Travis Tritt to Joan Osborne, John Fogerty and Bruce Hornsby, and celebrated the music and the life of Ricky’s mentor, Bill Monroe. Big Mon received much critical acclaim, including a Grammy nomination for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals. The album was re-released by Lyric Street Records in 2002 under a new name, Ricky Skaggs and Friends Sing the Songs of Bill Monroe. His fifth bluegrass album, History of the Future (2001), a timeless collection of both traditional bluegrass standards and newly conceived acoustic gems received rave reviews and industry accolades, including a Grammy nomination for Best Bluegrass Album and an IBMA nomination for Album of the Year, once again placing Skaggs among the leading innovators in the genre.
Skaggs’ first all-live album with Kentucky Thunder, Live at the Charleston Music Hall (2003) led to an IBMA Award for Instrumental Group of the Year – an award Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder has taken home 8 times in the last decade. The decision to record a live album was an obvious one for Skaggs. From a string of high-profile tour dates with the Dixie Chicks in 2000, to his position as host of the unprecedented “All*Star Bluegrass Celebration” which aired nationwide on PBS in 2002, to his participation in the wildly successful 41-city ’Down from the Mountain’ tour – Ricky has become one of bluegrass’ most dynamic and sought-after live performers.
He counts the current configuration of Kentucky Thunder among the best group of musicians he has ever worked with. “This group of guys meets my approval every night,” Ricky says. “Each and every one of the pickers in Kentucky Thunder totally amazes me in every show…and that, to me, outweighs any award we could ever win.” The all-star lineup of Kentucky Thunder includes Andy Leftwich (fiddle), Cody Kilby (lead guitar), Paul Brewster (tenor vocals, rhythm guitar), Eddie Faris (baritone vocals, rhythm guitar) Justin Moses ((banjo, background vocals) and Scott Mulvahill (bass, bass vocals). Live at the Charleston Music Hall was honored in 2004 with a Grammy Award for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group for the Harley Allen-penned track, “A Simple Life.”
In 2005, Ricky earned his 10th career Grammy (Best Bluegrass Album) for Brand New Strings – a beautiful collection of music featuring four Skaggs originals as well as several tunes by some of his most admired contemporaries, including Harley Allen, Guy Clark and Shawn Camp. In 2006, Skaggs was honored with a Grammy Award – this time in the Best Musical Album for Children category – for his contribution to Songs from the Neighborhood: the Music of Mister Rogers. Greater success followed with the release of Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder Instrumentals, an album of all-original, all-instrumental material in the fall of 2006. Praised by fans and critics alike as a landmark album for Skaggs, Instrumentals debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s bluegrass album chart and earned Ricky his 12th career Grammy Award (Best Bluegrass Album).
Cross pollination has been a mainstay throughout Ricky’s career, from his weekly collaborations with various artists as host of The Nashville Network’s Monday Night Concerts in the 1990’s to his recent pairings with Bruce Hornsby and The Whites. Released in March of 2007, Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby (Sony/Legacy) drew from the deep roots in mountain music – adding piano and Hornsby’s inimitable songwriting to the core bluegrass lineup of mandolin, guitar, bass, fiddle and banjo. A major ’CMT Crossroads’ special coincided with the album’s release.
His next recorded project, released in September of 2007 on Skaggs Family Records, was a literal family affair. After years of blending their voices from the living room to the stage, Ricky Skaggs and The Whites teamed up for their first collaborative gospel album, Salt of the Earth, which resulted in a 13th career Grammy Award for Best Southern, Country or Bluegrass Gospel Album, followed by a Gospel Music Association Dove Award for Bluegrass Recorded Album of the Year and Inspirational Country Music Awards for Musician of the Year as well as Mainstream Country Artist of the Year and Inspirational Bluegrass Artist of the Year (with The Whites).
In 2008, Skaggs paid tribute to the man he has often referred to as his “musical father”, Bill Monroe, and the original lineup of the Bluegrass Boys (Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt, Chubby Wise and Howard Watts) with the release of Honoring the Fathers of Bluegrass: Tribute to 1946 and 1947, earning a 14th career Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album.
A musical father in his own right, Skaggs continued on the full circle path with the addition of a ReIssue Series of his groundbreaking country music masterworks to the Skaggs Family Records catalog in 2009. Beginning with 1982’s Highways & Heartaches, and followed by 1981’s Waitin’ for the Sun to Shine and 1983’s Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown, the ReIssue Series will include nine albums total and includes bonus retrospectives with each release, which feature Ricky, in his own words, sharing never-before-told stories about the making of each project.
Skaggs’ first-ever solo album, Ricky Skaggs Solo: Songs My Dad Loved (2009), celebrated the man that caused him to fall in love with music – his father, Hobert Skaggs. He elaborates, “If I could’ve gotten my dad into the studio, this is how I would’ve wanted him to sound.” Playing every instrument and singing every note on the album, Ricky brought raw, emotional honesty to the songs. By coming home to the music that meant so much to him as a child, Ricky tapped into a wellspring of passion that is channeled into every tune, as though he willed himself back to his family’s house in Kentucky. Solo was honored in the American roots field with a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Folk Album in 2010.
Ricky Skaggs’ album, Mosaic (2010), marked a return to a full band sound that mixed elements of Country music with Beatles-esque melody and lyrics that spoke to Skaggs’ faith, “making music that is in my head and in my heart,” as Ricky said. Grammy winning songwriter/producer Gordon Kennedy, who co-wrote Eric Clapton’s “Change the World,” was instrumental as co-producer and writer. This most special album hooks the heart, as the sounds invite you in to take notice and come closer. They have blended their talents and love of music with their love for the Lord to create this distinctive collaboration of writing and talent, unparalleled in strength of genius. The song, “Return to Sender” from Mosaic was nominated for a Grammy for Best Gospel Song, and the album was a contender for Best Pop/Contemporary Gospel Album at the 53rd Grammy Awards, receiving major critical acclaim.
Marking Ricky’s 50th year in music was the release of Country Hits Bluegrass Style (2011), a compilation of many of Skaggs’ #1 country hits and fan favorites played in a bluegrass style. Combining his country and bluegrass roots along with Ricky’s impeccable tenor voice, his eight time IBMA Instrumental Band of the Year, Kentucky Thunder, and some of Ricky’s original award-winning country band alumni together with special friends added to the magic of this release.
Long awaited by country and bluegrass music fans alike, Music To My Ears (2012) is an exciting new offering by Ricky. Fresh, new bluegrass tunes co-written by Skaggs along with a brand new instrumental mark this CD in distinction among all others, while new takes on older bluegrass standards add to its charm. The album features a new duet with Ricky Skaggs and Barry Gibb (of Bee Gees fame) on deeply moving “Soldier’s Son,” along with new bluegrass treasure “You Can’t Hurt Ham,” inspired by a true story of Mr. Bill Monroe.
Ricky Skaggs has often said that he is “just trying to make a living” playing the music he loves. But it’s clear that his passion for it puts him in the position to bring his lively, distinctively American form of music out of isolation and into the ears and hearts of audiences across the country and around the world. Ricky Skaggs is always forging ahead with cross-cultural, genre-bending musical ideas and inspirations.
Where to start with Terri Clark’s Classic?
You might begin in 2004, the year Terri joined the cast of the Grand Ole Opry, tapping into the rich traditions of country music’s most famous stage.
There’s always 1995, the year Terri launched her career with “Better Things to Do,” a contemporary twist on the no-nonsense approach of Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” and pretty much the entire Loretta Lynn catalog.
Or maybe you go all the way back to 1987, when Terri’s mother and her best friend packed the aspiring singer and her belongings into a Honda Civic and drove from Canada to Nashville, leaving her to play for tips at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, a legendary Lower Broad honky-tonk.
The deeper you delve into Classic, the deeper you find its roots go.
The story really starts two generations back, with Clark’s maternal grandparents, who raised five kids while playing country music in Montreal nightclubs with names like The Kit Kat and The Western Stop.
“My grandmother was nicknamed The Canadian Kitty Wells; that’s what they called her around Montreal,” Terri says. “They couldn’t go to Nashville and take a bigger stab at it – with five kids that just wasn’t going to happen. So I made the pioneer trip to Tennessee.
The songs of Classic span four decades of timeless country music, starting with the tunes young Terri learned via impromptu living-room parties her grandparents often hosted – standards like “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” or “I’m Movin’ On” by ’The Singing Ranger’ Hank Snow, the first Canadian member of the Grand Ole Opry. Terri’s grandfather would break out his fiddle, her grandmother would start singing; soon it seemed like the entire neighbourhood would join in.
And the music didn’t stop when the party was over.
“My mom would tell me stories about how she would hear my grandmother walking around the house, vacuuming and cleaning, singing Loretta Lynn and Kitty Wells,” Terri says.
Years ago, a family friend gave Terri an LP that had her grandmother singing “This White Circle on My Finger,” one of the nearly three dozen Top 10 hits Wells released after “Honky Tonk Angels” blew the barroom doors wide open for women who yearned to sing country music.
That recording begins Classic. Then pedal-steel player Paul Franklin works some modulation magic, and Terri kicks her own version of “Honky Tonk Angels” into high gear.
From there, Classic conveys a history of country music viewed from a personal perspective. “I tried really hard to pick at least a song or two from every decade from the ’50s to the ’80s,” Terri says.
In doing so, she reveals the starting point for every part of the Terri Clark sound: the hardcore honky-tonk of Merle Haggard; the California country-rock of Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris; tough-minded women like Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline; Canadian stars from Hank Snow to Neil Young.
Classic bears the stamp of influences Tanya Tucker and Reba McEntire, who each join Terri for duet versions of their hits. Friends Jann Arden, Dierks Bentley and Dean Brody sing with her, as well.
Terri grew up singing most of these songs and playing many of them during her years at Tootsie’s, which shares an alley with the artists’ entrance to the Ryman Auditorium, one of the homes of the Grand Ole Opry. During the ’50s and ’60s, the historic Nashville nightspot, originally known as Mom’s, was a regular hang for greats like Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. Loretta Lynn’s husband used to drink there when Lynn played the Opry. Terri, of course, played Tootsie’s many years later, and only in the afternoons – her mother forbid the young singer from venturing there after dark.
“It was a war zone down there at that time, nothing but peep shows and pawn shops and adult theatres,” Terri recalls. “And there was Tootsie’s and the Ernest Tubb Record Shop in the middle of it all.”
Like many of her heroes whom she covers on Classic – Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Emmylou Harris among them – Terri eventually became a member of the Grand Ole Opry – the first and only Canadian female to date. That long-running, live radio show has an important place in the album.
“The Opry is a big part of this,” Terri says. “I wanted to be a member of the Opry because of this music. Every time we step on that stage, we’re playing tribute to everybody that came before us.”
Two of Terri’s Classic duet partners are fellow Opry stars. Dierks Bentley joins her for a remake of the George Jones and Tammy Wynette tale of pawnshop romance, “Golden Ring.” Reba McEntire harmonizes with her on “How Blue,” originally a hit from McEntire’s 1984 My Kind Of Country album, itself a collection of mostly covers.
“The guests on the album are people who have influenced me or people I’m a fan of, as artists,” says Terri, who was once a card-carrying member of the Reba McEntire Fan Club. Literally – she still has the card. Terri also still has a T-shirt her mother ordered from the fan club and gave her for Christmas one year.
“I took it into the studio the day Reba came into sing and said, ’Look what I found,’” she says.
McEntire wasn’t the first guest to sign on for Classic, though. That honour went to Tanya Tucker, who reprised her 1972 smash “Delta Dawn.” “Delta Dawn,” Terri says, was the second song she ever learned on the guitar (the first being “The Long Black Veil,” a 1959 hit for Lefty Frizzell that quickly became a folk standard). “I remember picking up the guitar and learning the chords and getting blisters on my fingers. I didn’t have calluses yet, because I only knew three chords.”
Tucker’s hit gains an additional level of empathy for the haunted Dawn in this new version, and a graceful fiddle-and-accordion tag sounds like a tender farewell to Dawn as she departs for that mansion in the sky.
On that track, and throughout Classic, Terri makes great use of some of Nashville’s top session musicians. Several of them have recorded with her throughout her career, playing on hits like “Better Things to Do,” “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me” and “I Wanna Do It All.” This time, Terri let them loose in the studio.
“They had fun,” she says. “And they played with reckless abandon – it’s not all polished and perfect. It sounds like they had a great time. That’s what always spoke the loudest about the records I’ve loved: It’s not about perfection, it’s about feeling an energy.”
That energy runs all the way through Classic, the energy of a contemporary artist having a lively discussion with the music that made her who she is. The spirit of Kitty Wells and Merle Haggard and Glen Campbell and Patsy Cline comes through loud and clear in the songs of Classic. At the same time, it sounds like a Terri Clark record.
“These are the songs that led to ’Better Things to Do’ and to everything else that followed in my career,” Terri says. “They shaped who I became as an artist, from the very beginning.”
Classic – November 13, 2012