(“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.)
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.
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