Progressive traditionalism

Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby find common ground at Taft Theatre

 By Rusty Pate

Photo: [l to r] Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby will perform at the Taft Theatre in Cincinnati on Oct. 4

On the surface, a Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby collaboration might not seem to make much sense.

Skaggs has spent the past five decades exploring and expanding traditional bluegrass music. Along the way, he has played with the titans of the genre such as Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley and Flatt and Scruggs, to name a few. Hornsby is perhaps best known for a string of pop hits in the 1980s, but he also performed with The Grateful Dead more than 100 times and he peppers his own shows with that same improvisational flair.

The duo recently released their second album together titled Cluck Ol’ Hen, which debuted at the top of the Billboard bluegrass chart. It was recorded live during their tour supporting the 2007 record Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby.

The seeds of their collaboration were planted nearly a decade earlier after Hornsby performed with Skaggs on the latter’s “Monday Night Concerts” show broadcast on The Nashville Network (now CMT.)  Shortly after, Skaggs was putting together a Bill Monroe tribute album and Hornsby was quickly brought on board.

“He was the first guy to sign up and show up in the studio,” Skaggs said. “That really is what started our current relationship. We did an old Monroe Brothers tune called ‘Darling Corey.’ After we cut it, we realized, every time we got together, it seemed as though sparks flew.”

The recordings that would eventually become Cluck Ol’ Hen were initially undertaken as a fairly informal affair. Skaggs remembered thinking it would be worthwhile just to have a document for personal purposes. But when they heard what was captured, they were astonished. It quickly became apparent they had another album on their hands.

When asked about favorite cuts, Skaggs first mentioned “Toy Hearts.” He said their typical arrangement included a bass solo, but that didn’t happen on this particular night. Instead, Hornsby stepped up with what Skaggs called a moment of divine providence.

“It was just so cool,” Skaggs said. “He started playing Jimmy Banks, Bill Evans, Leon Russell – just playing all of his favorite piano players all in one. Then we came back in and took another solo on the mandolin and we sang the last chorus and took it out. That’s just kind of how some of the shows go. We just get on a thing and have fun with it, and if we mess up, hey, it’s no big deal.”

While bluegrass typically contains a more structured approach to music, Skaggs is no stranger to incorporating different styles and diverse musicians into his sound. He has worked with such diverse artists as Jack White, Phish and Emmylou Harris. With a career in music featuring such a wide-ranging scope and spanning more than 50 years, he has more than a few stories to tell. Many of the best can be found in his new autobiography, “Kentucky Traveler: My Life in Music.” The book features a virtual who’s who of country and bluegrass legends such as Keith Whitley, Doc Watson and Levon Helm. That sense of nostalgia, mixed with a desire to push the boundaries of traditional music, has been a constant since his earliest days, including his role in one of the most influential bluegrass recordings of the past 40 years: the 1975 self-titled offering from J.D. Crowe and the New South.

“That time in my life, musically, was kind of a defining moment for me,” Skaggs said. “I was certainly walking into some new ground and new things that I hadn’t really done before. I think it stretched me, but it allowed me to be in a place where I could expand my horizons a little bit.”

He said the collaboration with Hornsby shares some similarities in approach. The new album features a take on Hornsby’s hit “The Way It Is” that finds the tune both fitting nicely into a bluegrass template while stretching beyond the genre at the same time.

Skaggs said the song may have originally been conceived, recorded and arranged as a pop tune, but the combination of Hornsby’s expansive and improvisational zeal with the tightly structured form and instrumentation of traditional music delivered a unique, yet familiar, kind of magic.

“Bruce really does allow us to go into some different veins of music and different streams – one big river, but I think we take off and go up a little tributary somewhere and investigate the woods up there and come back into the main stream,” Skaggs said. “I think there are some fans definitely that kind of put their hands up, palms straight up like, ‘Don’t come any closer kind of thing. Stay out, this is our music, we want to keep it pure.’ I’ve been one that puts my hands out, like, ‘Hey, you’re welcome – come in to this. Let’s have fun with it.’”


Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby will play on Friday, Oct. 4 at the Taft Theatre in Cincinnati at 8 p.m. Ticket prices range from $32.50-$52.50. For more information visit For more information on Ricky Skaggs new autobiography “Kentucky Traveler” visit

 Reach DCP freelance writer Rusty Pate at


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Rusty Pate
Reach DCP freelance writer Rusty Pate at

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