"Instrumentals" by Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder

Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder

Instrumentals

Skaggs Family

4 Stars (out of 5)

Instrumentals was released a few weeks before Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder earned its eighth International Bluegrass Music Association Instrumental Group of the Year award. So, while an all-instrumental collection comes as no surprise, anyone expecting classic barnburners like “Get Up John” (Bluegrass Rules, 1997) is in for quite a shock.

Skaggs’ album title isn’t exactly imaginative, but his eleven originals exhibit staggering creativity across elaborate soundscapes of bluegrass, newgrass, old-time, Celtic, classical, and jazz. He and Kentucky Thunder – Mark Fain (bass), Cody Kilby (guitar), Andy Leftwich (fiddle) and Jim Mills (banjo) –flawlessly glide “Wayward to Hayward” with a little “Spam Jelly” on their way to “Polk City.” Newgrassers “Missing Vassar” and “Dawg’s Breath” pay respective tributes to Vassar Clements and David Grisman. “Gallatin Rag” introduces a little Dixieland with Andy Statman on clarinet.

Despite past collaborations with the Chieftains and the clear ties between bluegrass and Irish music, the prevalence of Celtic tones on Instrumentals is still somewhat, but pleasantly, surprising. Jeff Taylor (accordion, pennywhistle) accompanies Kentucky Thunder on “Going to Richmond,” “Crossville,” and “Goin’ to the Ceili.” The album’s centerpiece is the 7-minute opus “Crossing the Briney” – with full orchestration courtesy of the Nashville Sound Machine.

Is the eclecticism a subtle rebuff for being recognized almost exclusively as an instrumental bluegrass band, or are incredibly talented musicians simply enjoying the freedom of artistic expression? Regardless, of all the grassers-gone-country and back again, Ricky Skaggs’ return is arguably the most sustained and sincere. The bluegrass section is where one will find Instrumentals (if one can find a record store these days). At home, consider filing the disc under “E” for “Exquisite.”

by Tim Walsh