Cluck Ol’ Hen – Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby

This review is a contribution from Marybeth Altizer, who we hope will be a regular correspondent.

Cluck Ol’ Hen - Ricky Skaggs and Bruce HornsbyRicky Skaggs, one of bluegrass’ most talented musicians, and Bruce Hornsby, an expressive pop vocalist and pianist, first paired their talents six years ago for the appropriately titled album, Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby.

They are reunited for Cluck Ol’ Hen, a live album released this week, which was recorded during a previous tour together. Bruce and Ricky will also have a string of live performances in support of the new project this Fall.

I have listened to my share of bluegrass albums, and this one became a favorite upon my first listen for a number of reasons. Its vibrancy resonates long after the last song ends. The playfulness you hear between Skaggs and Hornsby puts you on the stage with them, and brings the emotion of bluegrass music alive and back to better days in an instant. The soulful, traditional mix of music opens the box for this genre, allowing other music tastes to come on in and test the water. I think you’ll like the temperature.

Knowing that Bruce Hornsby has appeared on albums by Bob Dylan and Stevie Nicks, along with being a part of The Grateful Dead, is sure to make some curious to how this album will blend, as did the previous. The styles of Skaggs and Hornsby are so different that it would seem to take hot wax to make something like this melt together. But that’s exactly what happened. When these two artists start making music together, things heat up real quick.

Grass fans everywhere will enjoy the Bill Monroe classic Toy Heart, in which Hornsby’s jazzy piano breaks out into mountain music. The Dreaded Spoon adds a splash of humor, as you can clearly hear how these two artists love what they do, and love to have fun doing it. Hornsby’s The Way It Is, which topped the American music charts in 1986, rings with the same controversial truths that some things will never change, although with this rendition, proved itself wrong. The traditional title track, Cluck Ol’ Hen, is an all-time favorite for many, and will be sure to provide many more hours of foot tapping pleasure here.

This is not your everyday, run-of-the-mill bluegrass album. This is entertainment at its finest, with two of the most intriguing musical talents you will ever find. The vocals are flawless, the music dances with hints of folk and memories that get pulled out of nowhere. Ricky Skaggs is absolutely one of the best when it comes to the mesmerizing chop of the mandolin, and Bruce Hornsby brings a new, nostalgic flow to bluegrass that I’m sure will make this album a favorite. And that’s just the way it is.

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  • Darren Sullivan-Koch

    Just curious: Have there ever been any negative or constructively critical reviews on bluegrasstoday.com?

    • StoneFingers

      Darren,
      Somehow I missed this exchange when it originally occurred, so my apologies for “being late to the party”.

      I attempted to read the entirety of this thread, between (mostly) yourself and dennis, but alas it simply dragged on (and on, and on, and on…) for too long, so I stopped.

      My immediate response to your original post though is this….

      Yes, BGT does in fact issue “negative” and/or “critical” reviews of albums. In fact, in very recent history, David Morris was, I felt, “respectfully harsh” of Mr Skaggs’ prior album release, “Music to My Ears”.
      (https://bluegrasstoday.com/music-to-my-ears-from-ricky-skaggs/)

      I believe that my favorite quote from the article was…

      “Then imagine the disappointment when you discover the package contains a shirt. A well-made shirt, for sure. But, in the end, just a shirt.”

      You’ll have to read the review to get the context, but this was in no way “favorable”…

      Music is a personal thing and, as such, short of critiquing skill level, instrumental performance or engineering credentials, the review of an album can never be truly “negative” – unless you just like to hear people “sling mud”.

  • dennis

    Being “constructively” critical of giant pop or country acts is often warranted and helpful but those acts are isolated from the public and well compensated for the criticism. Bluegrass is a small genre where everybody knows everybody. Almost like family in some ways. Negative reviews serve no useful purpose and can be very hurtful both personally and professionally to an artist who has poured their heart and soul, and sometimes their life savings, into a project. The last thing they need is some self appointed music critic with a keyboard to publicly humiliate them. Music is very subjective at best and what one person loves another detest. When it comes to bluegrass, support and praise what you love and ignore the rest.

    • Darren Sullivan-Koch

      …I think that line of thought, while “polite” on the surface, is counterproductive in terms of the health of the genre: It does not help music fans make informed buying decisions, it does not alert the community the success or lack therof of experiments and novel ideas, and it keeps mediocre musicians in a bubble of false security.

      That said, the source of the criticism is important: If it’s from a reputable source or a writer with a strong foundation in the music, it’s certainly viable. If it is some hack, then, yeah, it’s less meaningful.

      And then there’s this review, which, while positive, is so poorly conceived and written that it doesn’t influence my opinion at all.

      • dennis

        Politeness has nothing to do with it but professionalism does. With sound clips on Itunes or Amazon anyone can preview songs of an artist. Most artist have music on Youtube before the cd is released. Anyone can preview an artist music before buying it and make a decision on weather or not they like it.
        What kind of music fan needs a “critic” to tell them what music to listen to? The purpose of the article above is too inform listeners that new music is available and that its an artist collaboration. Not to rate it’s quality. In your own words the “source” of the criticism is important. Name a critic is qualified to judge the music of Ricky Skaggs or Bruce Hornsby. They are among the best musicians in the world and that is proven by their success. Not by some critics words. When critics start playing recording their own cd’s then maybe we’ll see if they are qualified to judge another musician. Until then, music is best judged by the fans and the peers. Not by know it all music critics. In music as in life I’ve noticed most people who like to “criticize” do so to inflate their own fragile ego’s and somehow minimize their own failures. They don’t do it to “inform” listeners. Its easy to criticize. Support the music you love.

        • Darren Sullivan-Koch

          Well, Dennis, why read anything anyone writes? Sounds like, according to you, no one is qualified to write about anything. I agree we are all free-thinking individuals and can listen to clips and such, but insightful writers like Craig Havighurst, Jon Weisberger, Charles Wolfe, Neil Rosenberg, Peter Cooper, Geoffrey Himes, et al, have done much to enhance my understanding of this music by contextualizing it, placing it within a historical lineage, and comparing it objectively to similar artists in the field. Some of them are musicians, some of them are ethnomusicologists, some of them are journalists…and while I don’t agree with every word they say, I owe them a great deal.

          Some critics are jerks, but that doesn’t discount the field of music/art criticism as a whole. I mean, some carpenters are lying sleazebags, but does that mean I want to live in a world without carpentry? Please.

          And speaking of ridiculous, this article IS a review. If it wasn’t a review, it would be filled with unbiased information about the release, its circumstances, and availability — not puffy subjective phrases like “This is not your everyday, run-of-the-mill bluegrass album. This is entertainment at its finest, with two of the most intriguing musical talents you will ever find.” That’s a critical assessment, amigo.

          • dennis

            Musicians and artist are supposed to remain quiet and hang their head while “music critics” bash their life’s work all over the internet but someone responds to your post with some “constructive criticism” about “being positive” and you become defensive, abusive, (using words like “ridiculous”) and your response is argumentative and condescending. Not to mention putting words in peoples mouth. I never said people shouldn’t read anything but of course you know that. I said only people who actually have expertise in the subject written about have a qualified opinion to write about it. A carpenter who has never built a house has no business writing a book on how to build an house. Most music “critics” are not musical geniuses so their “opinion”, good or bad, has no more value than any other average listener’s opinion. I really don’t have any more time for this your nonsense but I will add its lucky for you Darren there are and always will be plenty of egotistical music snobs out there who love to lift themselves up by putting others down. So, if you don’t find the negativity you crave here there’s plenty of it out there on the internet to make you happy.

          • Darren Sullivan-Koch

            Yeah, we’re not gonna see eye-to-eye on this one…I certainly think critics should be held accountable for their work: Musicians have a right to respond and rebut needlessly cruel or ill-informed criticism, and in the end, it’s the music that matters. But discussion, contextualizing, and thoughtful criticism is essential to creating a vital scene. Perhaps the toothlessness of so much bluegrass criticism is the reason why so much lame songwriting and tepid musicianship is infiltrating bluegrass today.

  • Dennis Jones

    When has anyone ever seen a negative review of a Bluegrass record here or anywhere? Darren Sullivan-Koch is right, it’s time stop with all the phony promotional/one sheet boloney. Every CD I get is certainly not a winner or even runs a second or third place. The only way to make any form of music stronger is to weed out the bad products and groups. This includes well known bands who make a bad record.

    While this Ricky Skaggs/Bruce Hornsby project has some great moments, it’s not a Bluegrass project.

    • Ivor Trueman

      The older issues of Bluegrass Unlimited have plenty of negative reviews but ‘weeds’ are only plants growing in the wrong place…

      I mean… one man’s meat is another man’s poison… and whilst there’s enough ‘clues’ in this review for me avoid it with a ‘bargepole’, I’m sure others will lap it up.

      Thanks for WNCW & the Going Across The Mountains team for keeping it real!

      PS: Loved todays live session with Darin & Brooke Aldrige.

    • Darren Sullivan-Koch

      Totally…I just want a good, reputable outlet for thoughtful, well-informed, honest reviews of bluegrass records: good, bad, and ugly. There doesn’t seem to be one these days. Apparently everything is AMAZING.

  • dennis

    Just for the record and to make my point clear if I have failed to do so. I think Darren got it totally wrong about wanting more “negative” reviews. Negative reviews don’t help anyone in BLUEGRASS music but they sure can be hurtful to some, especially young, artist.
    Saying negative reviews weed out bad music is only true if the critic is the ultimate authority of what is good and bad and the rest of us are too ignorant or lazy to choose good and bad for ourselves. For the record I don’t believe in “the phony promotional/one sheet boloney” either but any true bluegrass fan knows it when he/she sees it and ignores it.
    Bad music will disappear own its own accord and good music will rise to the top and stick around. That should be decided by “bluegrass fans”. Not Bluegrass Unlimited or Bluegrass Today.
    Like you said Dennis, you get a lot of music and not all of it is good. I can’t imagine you needing someone to tell you what is and isn’t bluegrass. You know bluegrass because you love it. That is as it should be. You, the listener, made that choice and you play and support the music you love on your show. I don’t hear you play and bash the music you don’t like. Why should they do it in print media? I’m just saying all bluegrass fans have the right to judge what they do or don’t like without a critic leading or “misleading’ them. I think most bluegrass listeners are competent enough to choose music for themselves without some “unnamed critic” in BU making the choice for them. There are plenty of things wrong in the world to complain about but I don’t believe criticizing someone making “bluegrass” music to the best of their ability is not one of them. Support the music you love.

    • dennis

      oops. Sorry for the typo. The last sentence should say ” There are plenty of things wrong in the world to complain about but I don’t believe criticizing someone making “bluegrass” music to the best of their ability is one of them. Support the music you love.”

    • Darren Sullivan-Koch

      I definitely agree that the final say in the matter belongs to the listener. I read criticism with a bit of nuance — having been both a critic and musician, having written bad reviews and received bad reviews, I have the luxury of being on both sides of the fence. So if the writer does a good job describing the music, and it intrigues me, I’m gonna check it out — even if they themselves don’t like it…I just don’t see the point of having a “reviews” section in a magazine or a website if it’s all gonna be fawning.

  • dennis

    “having been both a critic and musician, having written bad reviews and received bad reviews,”.. That is exactly my point from the beginning. A glowing report on bad music will not hurt the artist but will damage the credibility of the reviewer because bluegrass fans recognize hype when they read it and then take time to compare the hype to the music. A negative review can be devastating to “some” artist, especially young bluegrass artist. Many artist have fragile ego’s and it’s hard to put your life’s work out there for everyone to judge. In my opinion its better to ignore bad music. Let the artist will figure out what they are doing wrong. Going negative only hurts the artist and the genre. Good reviewers can be informative about the music without being negative.

    • Darren Sullivan-Koch

      I actually never mind getting negative reviews — as long as they are not mean-spirited or ill-informed. A thoughtful criticism of my work is always welcomed. If a critic has some ax to grind with me that is beyond the scope of my music, then I take issue.

      • Darren Sullivan-Koch

        And “a glowing report on bad music will not hurt the artist” is certainly true, but it will also damage the integrity of the music: A new fan may read the review, pick up the album, and then hear mediocre drivel. Thus, he or she are more likely to not investigate bluegrass further…

        • dennis

          ” A new fan may read the review, pick up the album, and then hear mediocre drivel. Thus, he or she are more likely to not investigate bluegrass further…”. Bluegrass fans don’t buy cd’s based on “reviews”. A review may tweak their interest to check an artist out but they don’t order it based a review. They are smarter than that. They listen to the artist first. Even kids. They listen online or at a concert or on the radio. Sorry but it just sounds more like another poor excuse for a “critic” to justify their existence.

          • Darren Sullivan-Koch

            Yeah, we’re never going to resolve this. And, sadly, you’re dead wrong. I’m a bluegrass fan, and I sometimes (not always) buy recordings based on reviews. Not every fan operates this way, but a lot of us do. There are some writers I really trust…and others I am less fond of…

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  • dennis

    Sorry Darren you are the one who can’t see the forest for the trees. My intention never was to resolve anything with you or convince you how wrong you are. I’ve read enough of your ENDLESS post to know you think more highly of your opinion than the rest of us and don’t make a habit of admitting your “dead wrong” though as often as not you are. Self appointed music critics are a pet peeve of mine. You might be surprised to know My post were not even meant for you. They were meant for others who will read this thread and see how arrogant self appointed critics are and how oblivious they are are to the hurt they cause artist who are just trying to make some music. Also its pretty evident that many critics, such as yourself, are more than willing to dish it out to artist who can’t defend themselves, but when they are criticized themselves they start with the personal attacks and ridicule as you did here. Thanks for your help in making all my points. Goodbye and Good luck with your “criticism” 🙂

    • Darren Sullivan-Koch

      I don’t write criticism anymore — if you’d done a little research, you’d know that…it didn’t feel right to me personally.

      But it doesn’t affect my admiration for insightful folks like Jon Weisberger, Craig Havighurst, Ken Barnes, Dave Freeman, Geoffrey Himes, etc. I just think it’s a bit far-fetched to disparage the entire art of criticism…good critics are a valuable resource, as are good musicians. Bad critics are a blight, as are bad musicians.

      I too have a beef with self-important critics — just like I do with mediocre musicians who are so convinced of their (non) talents. We’re probably more alike than this thread let’s on.

      • dennis

        Sorry, I don’t have time to research your life’s work Darren and frankly I’ve put in more time on this thread than is warranted. Still I believe as long as its here it will serve a useful purpose. Second, if you don’t criticize in your reviews why in the world would you asked Bluegrass Today to do what you personally won’t do. That makes no sense. Third, I only posted in response to your original post there was not enough “criticism” here on Bluegrass Today. Go back and read my response thoroughly you will see I didn’t disparage the “entire” art of criticism. I made it very clear that I believed it had no place in the “bluegrass” genre and I made it very clear that a “critic” better show some real credentials before criticizing what he might not understand. I also made it clear that is better to show some respect to an artist who has a project that is “less than perfect” by ignoring it rather than trying to publicly humiliate them out of bluegrass. “non-musicians” can’t hide their “non-talent” on stage and will get their due recognition sooner or later. NON-critics can and do hide their non-talent behind a magazine review in BU for years causing hurt in the personal lives of often well intentioned if not so talented artist. Support the music you love and ignore the rest.

        • Darren Sullivan-Koch

          I personally don’t feel comfortable performing medical evaluations pregnant women, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done at all…music criticism wasn’t for me, but it still serves a vital role — whether it’s the passionate amateur blogger or amazon.com user or a seasoned pro with a deep understanding of a particular style. I like hearing what people think, although I make up my own mind in the end.

          I’ve taken many a critic to task for ignorance or misconceptions, but I’ve also learned a lot from great writers. That’s the long and short of it for me. Why one genre (bluegrass) should be exempt from criticism is beyond me, but hey, it works for you, so carry on!

          But seriously, did a music critic kill your puppy?

          • Darren Sullivan-Koch

            It should read: “on pregnant women”….

          • dennis

            “But seriously, did a music critic kill your puppy?”
            No, a logging truck killed my puppy. BTW I agree that music critics, such as yourself, have about as much business giving medical advice to pregnant women as they do telling Ricky Skaggs what kind of music he should make.

          • Darren Sullivan-Koch

            Um, you did see that I’m NOT a music critic, right? I tried it many years ago, and it wasn’t for me. Skaggs can do whatever the heck he wants.