Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby

Two master musicians team up for an exhilarating bluegrass project

Bluegrass has rules, and although Ricky Skaggs is very good at playing by those rules, he’s furthered his career by breaking them. A child prodigy, the virtuoso mandolinist and vocalist detoured from the genre in the 1980s and early ’90s into mainstream country, scoring nearly a dozen No. 1 hits and a shelf full of Grammys.

But it was Skaggs’ 2007 collaborative album with pianist-singer-songwriter Bruce Hornsby that raised eyebrows. Like Skaggs, Hornsby scored hits—in the pop and rock world—in the ’80s before turning his singular keyboard gifts toward a kaleidoscope of styles, from jazz to classical to bluegrass. Still, fans of both wondered how these musical aces would find common ground.

The seeds were sown seven years earlier when Hornsby and Skaggs collaborated on a tribute record to bluegrass master Bill Monroe. When they got around to making the record Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby, it came naturally—and wasn’t so much a hybrid as something new for both. And when the pair set out on the road after its release, they expanded on and refined the concept.

Now Skaggs and Hornsby, both 59, have released Cluck Ol’ Hen, a collection of live tracks recorded during that tour. Backed by a stunningly tight acoustic band, including members of Skaggs’ group Kentucky Thunder, they run through classics by the likes of Monroe and Ralph Stanley, as well as Hornsby originals—including a radical take on “The Way It Is,” his 1986 chart-topper. Skaggs spoke with us about why their ongoing collaboration works so well.

How did you and Bruce meet?

We first met around 1990—a Fourth of July festival in Elmira, N.Y. It wasn’t very well promoted; there were more people backstage than in the audience. Bruce was doing his pop stuff. He’d had a few good-sized hits out, and I was going up the charts in country. He asked me to sit in, but it was a short meeting. We had to leave right after the show and didn’t see each other for years. Then I was hosting some television shows from the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville in the mid-’90s and had Bruce on as a guest. He’d just released his record Hot House, and on the cover was a picture of Bill Monroe and Charlie Parker, so that struck my interest. I asked Bruce then if he would be interested in doing a Bill Monroe tribute, which I called Big Mon when it came out a few years later. I wanted nonbluegrass artists who’d been influenced by his music. Bruce was the first guy to say yes and the first to record, and we decided after that recording that we had to do more.

Why did you want to work with Bruce?

Listening to him play on the Dirt Band’s version of “The Valley Road” let me know that he liked bluegrass. I remember telling Bruce, “Those rolls you’re playing with your right hand, they sound like a banjo player.” I asked him if he’d ever gone to any bluegrass festivals when he was a kid in Virginia and he said, “Oh, yeah.” He loves that style of music and rootsy music. We just felt like we had a connection, and that was certainly proven true when we went into the studio.

What was the next step?

He sent me some songs. One was “Dreaded Spoon.” Bruce told me, “My dad used to take a big whack out of our ice cream cones when we’d be in the back seat. He had this old nasty spoon in the glove compartment, and I wrote a song about it.” So we did that, and he had two or three other things he liked, and then I sent him a few. We just wanted to get in the studio. Seeing that we were both singers and instrumentalists, and we had a great band, it seemed to be a great fit.

Were there any challenges making music for piano and mandolin?

Sonically there are similarities in a lot of the noting and a lot of the sound. When Bruce and I do his song “Mandolin Rain” with just the two of us, I swear there are times when I can’t tell if it’s him or me playing. There’s a beautiful mesh of music that happens. How do you make a big piano work with a teeny mandolin? It’s hard to explain, but the love and respect I have for him is key, and I believe it’s the same with him. When we walk out, for the next two hours we’re going to do what our talent can do.

How has the record been received?

It debuted at No. 1 on the bluegrass chart. It doesn’t take a whole lot of sales to do that, but still. And the bluegrass community has embraced it more than they did the first one—radio is playing it, bloggers are blogging about it. Maybe it’s more bluegrass than the first, but we were trying to find our way back then.

Acoustic music has grown dramatically. 

I’ve said for a long time that bluegrass is the real hope of country. Country music is right and left and up and down, mixtures of this and that—it’s so pop now. They’re even doing rap around country. Young people are listening to acts like Iron and Wine, Sufjan Stevens, and Mumford and Sons, who play acoustic and have banjos. Old Crow Medicine Show is carrying a torch for Tennessee string-band music of the ’20s and ’30s. Young people want to have fun, especially at outdoor festivals. The kids are trying to be hippies. They’re wearing the clothes but taking daily showers and driving in with the BMWs and Mercedes, or a big pickup truck.

Why do you both love Monroe’s music?

My dad bought me a mandolin when I was 5. He paid $5 for it, probably at a pawnshop. When I was 6, I went to see Bill Monroe at a high school close to my house, and the neighbors started requesting little Ricky Skaggs get up there to sing a song. Finally he called for me to come up onstage. He said, “What do you play, boy?” I said, “I play mandolin.” He pulled off his big Gibson F5 mandolin, and put it on me. Here I am, playing this mandolin and singing a song with the band, “Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man?”—a very appropriate song for a kid.

I don’t know what he saw in me, but I know what I saw in him, and that was a man who was willing to humble himself in front of a crowd and let a 6-year-old come onstage. And I saw a man who was passionate about the songs he was singing and was such an incredible musician. I was marked by this music from an early age. I’ve always played it with different bands—I cut bluegrass with Emmylou Harris’ band, and even all my country music hits had a taste of bluegrass.

What’s the future of bluegrass?

There are plenty in bluegrass who would put their hands up and say, “Don’t come into our music,” but I love to put my hands out and say, “Hey, you’re welcome in here.” I did a thing with Jack White and the Raconteurs, and that was so much fun. I want to be inclusive—to be able to expand on this music is very important to me.

–Jeff Tamarkin



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