Ricky Skaggs was a child mandolin prodigy. As a teen, he played in Ralph Stanley’s group, graduated to the Country Gentlemen and Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band. Then he launched a country-music career, became a superstar and eventually, after the Nashville hits stopped coming, returned to his bluegrass roots.
Skaggs and his bluegrass crew, Kentucky Thunder, have had a pretty good run, garnering a string of 10 bluegrass Grammys since 1999.
The Dakota Jazz Club offers the ideal intimacy to appreciate Skaggs’ acoustic sound. He was on mandolin or acoustic guitar while his band featured three acoustic guitarists, a banjoist, fiddler and upright bassist.
If you were expecting that guy with the thatch of red hair singing his 1980s hits “Don’t Get Above Your Raising” and “Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown,” you’d have been disappointed Thursday at the Dakota.
At age 58, Skaggs has long, scraggly silver hair (“I had my hair looking more presentable but I got caught in an arctic blast coming out of the hotel,” he quipped, though Emmylou Harris might have told her ex-sideman You Give Silver Hair a Bad Mane). And he’s strictly bluegrass.
His voice wasn’t always high but it was always lonesome during Thursday's opening set. And the pickin’ was pretty fancy, the harmonies sweet and the sound a little thicker than usual for bluegrass with three acoustic guitars.
Skaggs focused on material from last year’s “Music to My Ears” album. Of course, he also saluted bluegrass founder Bill Monroe (“Mr. Munro,” he called him) with a couple of numbers and acknowledged Doc Watson with “Tennessee Stud” (in a key too low for Skaggs’ voice).
Skaggs was garrulous, telling deep history behind songs, Mr. Munro (he actually called him “Mr. Monroe” once) and even his mandolin (it belonged to Pee Wee Lambert in the 1940s). Heck, like a color commentator at a football game, he even blurted “Dang, that was fast” after “Bluegrass Breakdown.”
But that’s what the fans wanted to hear – the fast stuff like the toe-tapping “Sally Jo” during which each soloist elevated the performance to a higher level. Other highlights included “New Jerusalem” with its Middle Eastern-flavored mandolin and the corny but cute “You Can’t Hurt Ham” about a desperately hungry post-concert Bill Monroe eating some, um, let's say, leftover pork.
Skaggs drew the over-40 crowd whereas the under-40 bluegrass crowd has been flocking this week to Trampled By Turtles at First Avenue, where they play their third and final sold-out show Friday.
Wednesday’s nearly two-hour set by these Duluth-bred, groove-loving bluegrass/folk/country pickers with an avant-punk attitude featured smartly spun ballads, sing-along rock covers and speedy breakdowns. I’m sure Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder would have been impressed.
Ricky Skaggs photo by Associated Press/ Joe Howell