In music, you can indeed go home again. Ricky Skaggs got his start in bluegrass music, sharing the stage with Bill Monroe at age 6, yet it wasn’t until the early 1980s that he broke into mainstream country and charted three No. 1 albums in a row.
But such success is fleeting, and after awhile Skaggs returned to his roots and started cutting bluegrass records again. It helped him win the Grammy for best bluegrass album five times since 1999 and solidified his status as a legend of the genre.
Skaggs prefers to think of himself as a teacher, a mentor to the young men that play in his backing band Kentucky Thunder. When Skaggs bounded on to the Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley stage Thursday and greeted the nearly sold-out early show crowd with a hearty, “Howdy, kids!” you weren’t completely sure he wasn’t talking to his band, all about 25 or 30 years younger than him.
Teacher and pupils immediately got things rolling with a zippy version of “How Mountain Girls Can Love,” the Stanley Brothers tune that featured on Skaggs’ Grammy-winning 1999 album “Ancient Tones.” When Skaggs ripped his first impossibly complex warp-speed solo of the night, the crowd clapped tentatively but soon got the picture: After killing a solo, these good ol’ boys like to hear some applause.
Playing his mandolin “Pee Wee,” which was made in 1922 and once belonged to Pee Wee Lambert, Skaggs looked and sounded right at home on the Jazz Alley stage. After a few old tunes, including a nice version of Monroe’s “Toy Heart,” Skaggs and his band of young bluegrass upstarts played several cuts off their new album “Music to My Ears.”
In between songs, Skaggs entertained the crowd with stories about Monroe, his father (“Son, if you’re a little out of tune it don’t matter; it just sounds like there’s more of us playing.”) and Tennessee picker Doc Watson.
Highlights included the album’s first track “Blue Night,” during which Skaggs tore through his best solo of the set, a menacing mandolin attack that bore little resemblance to the carefully articulated sequence on the record and had the crowd roaring its approval.
“New Jerusalem,” an instrumental number that Skaggs described as “a new song that sounds old,” was similarly impressive and allowed Kentucky Thunder — fiddler Andy Leftwich, guitarists Cody Kilby, Paul Brewster and Ed Faris, bassist Mark Fain and banjo man Justin Moses — to rumble joyously.
Old or new, it was simply more evidence that Skaggs and his band are just about the best bluegrass has to offer.
-Owen R. Smith, on Twitter @inanedetails