Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby - self-titled

Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby
Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby


First Appeared in The Music Box, April 2007, Volume 14, #4

Written by John Metzger


Although he never has faltered in concert — where he fully is able to put his freewheeling, adventurous nature to good use — Bruce Hornsby’s recorded output, particularly over the past decade, often has exuded the air of an artist searching for direction. On Harbor Lights, his last indisputably great album, he enveloped his cleverly crafted pop songs with sophisticated, jazz-inflected arrangements. His studio works since then, however, have been terribly uneven. Spirit Trail, for example, was a sprawling, double-disc affair that lacked a focus, despite the lyrical threads that coursed through it. While Hot House and Halcyon Days had their moments, they also felt largely like lesser, odds-and-sods sets. Big Swing Face fared better in that it was more musically cohesive, but Hornsby’s experimentations with stream-of-consciousness lyrics and electronica-based grooves were so foreign to his fans that they completely were misunderstood. Consequently, he abandoned the groundwork he had laid, and as a result, the effort now sounds like a strange diversion rather than a bold, new beginning.

Hornsby’s latest project, the aptly titled Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby, ought to be better received. Having grown from the cover of Darlin’ Cory that he lent to Big Mon, a tribute to Bill Monroe that Skaggs championed in 2000, the collection has been a long time coming. While bluegrass-hued music hardly is new to Hornsby’s repertoire, he never before has devoted a full-fledged endeavor to exploring the genre. Throughout the eponymous effort, Hornsby is backed by Skaggs and his longstanding outfit Kentucky Thunder as well as by fiddler Stuart Duncan and dobro player Jerry Douglas. Nevertheless, although the set’s title indicates that it was a fully collaborative undertaking, the imprint that has been placed upon the material largely bears Hornsby’s mark. Strip away the bluegrass accoutrements, and the songs would fit comfortably among any of his other albums.

While this isn’t in and of itself the problem with Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby, it does provide an indication regarding why the outing is such a mixed bag. On the one hand, there’s a playfulness that exists outside the self-titled collection’s opening and closing tracks — a twang-inflected tale of pilfered food dubbed The Dreaded Spoon and a surprisingly functional but completely corny cover of Rick James’ Super Freak that features guest vocalist John Anderson. Similarly, some genuine chemistry did develop among the participants as they blurred the line between bluegrass and jazz. Although the evocative re-imaginations of Mandolin Rain and A Night on the Town might be only slight improvements upon the original renditions of the songs, they do succeed in casting them in a new light.

On the other hand, there’s a tentativeness to Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby that is difficult to shake. As much as the musicians push the driving, determined groove of Across the Rocky Mountain and sail in a stirring fashion through the instrumental Stubb, other cuts, such as Sheep Shell Corn and Hills of Mexico feel like filler. While the musicianship frequently is impeccable — which, considering the ensemble that was assembled, undeniably is an expected outcome — it also feels, at times, as if Hornsby, Skaggs, and company are holding something back. Consequently, they rarely realize their full potential, and every time they do, they quickly retreat to their comfort zone, which is why the set sounds so much like Hornsby’s songs merely have been adorned with bluegrass textures. The good news, however, is that at least Hornsby is more centered, focused, and inspired than he has been in ages. This, alone, is worth savoring. starstarstar ˝

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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!


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