Exploring The Classics #3: “Skaggs & Rice” by Ricky Skaggs and Tony Rice (1980)


(“Exploring the Classics” (ETC) is an ongoing series in which I highlight and discuss an album from country music’s past that is of particular noteworthiness due to general acclaim, influence, historical import, commercial success, or some combination thereof. While in many instances I’ll be revisiting albums with which I’ve long been familiar, in others I’ll be experiencing these works for the first time. What albums count as “noteworthy” is obviously highly subjective and determined at my discretion, but I’m not too strict about it. I do, however, feel that these are the works that tell the story of country music and all of its many roots and branches.)

Collaborative and duet albums have a long and storied history in country music, but in truth they rarely live up to their billing. There have been many good ones, but few I would classify as genuinely great. I don’t know if the problem is the difficulty of two artists working together on a unified vision (“too many chefs spoil the soup”) or what, but such albums are seldom as interesting as the individual artists’ best solo material. However, this general observation in no way applies to Ricky Skaggs and Tony Rice’s self-titled album from 1980, which is a thoroughly excellent bluegrass album from start to finish.

By the time this album came out, Tony Rice was already a big name in bluegrass with a handful of acclaimed albums to his name and a reputation as a virtuoso of the acoustic guitar. Ricky Skaggs was only in his mid-twenties and had just released his first solo album, but already had a considerable amount of musical experience under his belt as a member of various bluegrass bands since the time he was a teenager. The two men knew each other from their time in J.D. Crowe’s The New South and set out to create an album together that paid tribute to the music they loved and grew up on.

Skaggs & Rice is a celebration of traditional bluegrass music. The two men cover bluegrass standards as well as traditional folk tunes given new bluegrass arrangements, and the song selection is impeccable. Bill Monroe’s “Mansions For Me” and “Memories of Mother and Dad” will give you chills, guaranteed. Charlie Monroe’s “The Old Crossroads” and The Stanley Brothers’ “Have You Someone In Heaven Awaiting” are both proven classics. But it’s the traditional folk tunes that have been revived that tend to be my favorites. “Talk About Suffering” (which Doc Watson also famously recorded on his 1964 debut) never fails to move me, and gospel music seldom gets more enjoyable than “Where The Soul Of Man Never Dies.”

The one word I would use to describe this album is beautiful. The two men’s voices work wonderfully together, creating gorgeous harmonies reminiscent of The Louvin Brothers or The Stanley Brothers. The production and musicianship is top-notch, and every note oozes with joy and reverence. Skaggs and Rice are both supremely talented instrumentalists and are two of bluegrass music’s finest practitioners, and their performances are terrific. To top it all off, they’re supported by fellow virtuoso David Grisman, whose mandolin playing adds a further richness to the proceedings.

If I have one complaint about this album, it’s that while every track is well above-average and approaches greatness, it seems to be missing a true 10/10 stunner that stands out. However, it’s easy to call an album this consistently strong a true classic. Skaggs & Rice is among the first albums I would recommend to anyone looking to get into traditional bluegrass. It serves as a nice bridge between the old and new and makes for an excellent gateway into getting into the bluegrass pioneers like Bill Monroe. And at only 27 minutes, it doesn’t drag or demand a lot of your time.

Standout Track: “Where The Soul Of Man Never Dies” contains some beautiful interplay between the two men’s voices and is very catchy

Worst or Least Essential Track: “Tennessee Blues” by virtue of being an instrumental, but it’s still quite enjoyable

Best Lyric: In “There’s More Pretty Girls The One”, the womanizing protagonist is likely setting himself up for a fall:

“Honey, look down that old lonesome road
Hang down your pretty head and cry
‘Cause I’m thinking all about them pretty little gals
And hopin’ that I’ll never die”

Hidden Gem: “The Old Crossroads” contains a pretty conventional theme for a gospel song, but is extremely well-written and the two men deliver a great performance

Recommended If You Like: Skaggs’ or Rice’s solo work, Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, The Stanley Brothers

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