Ricky Skaggs has announced two new members of his barnstorming bluegrass group, Kentucky Thunder. Mike Rogers will come aboard as tenor singer and Billy Contreras as fiddler. Both are highly celebrated artists in their own right, and will surely add excitement and virtuosity to Ricky’s already strong touring band.
The changes were necessitated by the retirement of long time Skaggs guitarist and singer Paul Brewster, and the continued recuperation and recovery of fiddler Mike Barnett. Both Mike’s brain injury and Paul’s stepping down took place during the COVID shutdowns in 2020, but now that live music is back again in earnest, new troopers were needed for the Skaggs bluegrass army.
Brewster has been a lifelong bluegrass stalwart who first received national attention with The Knoxville Grass in the 1970s. From there he worked with The Osborne Brothers for a decade until the death of his friend Keith Whitley soured him on the touring life. He moved to Florida and worked as a golf pro but returned to Knoxville and sang at Dollywood until Skaggs called in 1995.
Ricky says it will be hard to look to his left and not see Brewster there with his guitar.
“As Paul’s been with me for more than 25 years, he made a huge impact in the sound and makeup of Kentucky Thunder. He’s one of the best tenor singers in bluegrass music, a first-class musician, and a good friend. Paul is a wonderful Christian brother as well, which has been more important to him than his great singing gift. His presence on stage and off will be missed!”
Rogers, however, is more than up to the task. Also a veteran grasser, he did his time as a member of Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, singing the high parts and playing guitar for three years. He has worked around Nashville since leaving Doyle in 2013, working as a drummer and a vocalist, and was featured prominently on a recent Gaither Music release with Jimmy Fortune, Bradley Walker, and Ben Isaacs.
Mike Barnett joined Kentucky Thunder back in 2016 and quickly earned the respect of not only his bandmates, but the wider bluegrass community, for his fiery fiddling and general good nature. Both were shocked to learn last summer that he had suffered a brain aneurysm and would require substantial therapy to return to a normal life. He and his wife, Analise, are committed to the necessary steps to complete a full recovery.
Of course, from the band perspective, the show must go on, but Ricky offers him all the support he can.
“Our hearts were heavy upon hearing the news of Mike’s brain aneurysm back last summer. He has overcome so much and is working hard towards recovery. We can’t wait to see him get back to fiddling, of which he is a master at such a young age. My wife Sharon and I, along with the band and crew, look forward to seeing him perform again soon, and all of our prayers are with him at this time for God to heal him completely.”
Contreras comes in with a sterling reputation in the fiddle world, as an experienced performer, educator, arranger and producer. Known as a fearless improvisor, seeing him on stage should provide quite a thrill for audiences at Ricky Skaggs shows coming up. By day Billy teaches in the music department at Belmont University in Nashville.
Billy and Mike join other regular bandmates Russ Carson on banjo, Jake Workman on guitar, Dennis Parker on harmony vocals, and Jeff Picker on bass, Ricky, of course, primarily plays mandolin and sings lead, though you may see him grab a guitar from time to time.
Here’s a look at Kentucky Thunder doing Uncle Pen with Rogers and Contreras from a recent show, though Seth Taylor is subbing on guitar and Mark Fain on bass.
More information about Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder can be found on his official web site.