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.
That pretty much sums up my feelings about Music to My Ears, the new CD from Ricky Skaggs. Holding the package in my hand, I couldn’t help but remember Don’t Get Above Your Raising and all the other terrific gifts Ricky has given us over the years. I was eager to dive in.
When I popped it in the player and adjusted the headphones, however, I found the musical equivalent of that shirt. It’s well made, with some hot picking and better than average vocals. But I’ve come to expect more from Ricky over the years and was disappointed not to find it here.
Still, this is Ricky Skaggs and there is some memorable music here. My roots may be showing, but the best of the 11 songs are directly linked to the rich traditions of bluegrass. Topping the list is a quirky homage to Bill Monroe called You Can’t Hurt Ham, which Ricky wrote with Gordon Kennedy. A humorous song about life on the road with the guy who started the bluegrass tradition is hard to beat. I’m pretty certain this one will be played on stages and in jam sessions for years to come.
There’s also the comfortable, down-home feel of a Stanley Brothers staple, Loving You Too Well, which features Ricky’s best vocal performance on the CD, and a touching rendition of Tennessee Stud, added as a tribute to the late Doc Watson, who passed away while Ricky and the band were in the studio. Blue Night and the instrumental New Jerusalem are also worth repeat listens.
But aside from You Can’t Hurt Ham and the novelty of hearing former Bee Gee Barry Gibb singing Soldier’s Son, which he wrote, there isn’t much here that will stand the test of time or generate much of a buzz.
The best bluegrass—and Ricky has delivered some of it over the years—takes place on the edge, just this side of crashing and burning. There’s urgency, tension and surprise. On Music to My Ears, those elements are largely missing. The overall vibe is mellow and too many of the songs are slow or mid-tempo numbers. There’s nothing wrong with mellow, mind you, but every once in a while you have to let it rip.
There’s nice, serviceable music in this package. I’d gotten my hopes up for much more.