Country Gentleman, Hillbilly Rocker WOW New York

This appeared on Reuters - January 23, 2006

It was an unseasonably warm evening in Manhattan when Kentuckian Ricky Skaggs and Mississippian Marty Stuart co-headlined a sold-out show at the Times Square BB King's on Sunday.

The multiple Grammy winners raised temperatures in the supper club, bringing Southern hospitality to jaded New Yorkers with an evening of bluegrass, gospel and stripped-down rock 'n' roll.

"Y'all ready for some bluegrass?" Skaggs asked as he stepped up to the microphone. Along with his six-man band, Kentucky Thunder, Skaggs opened with "How Mountain Girls Can Love" and played beautifully throughout the night.

Skaggs is a charmer. He joked between songs in his warm Southern twang and spoke respectfully of the roots of bluegrass as he mixed original compositions with covers of Bill Monroe, the father of the genre. Ever smiling, Skaggs said, "I got bluegrass in my blood," and played "Sis Draper" and "Sally Jo" from his recent Grammy-winning album Brand New Strings (Skaggs Family Records).

Bluegrass, with its fiddle, banjo, mandolin, upright bass and acoustic guitars, is akin to jazz in that performers trade solos on their instruments while the band holds down the melody of the song. The members of Kentucky Thunder are accomplished players. Skaggs is a virtuoso on the mandolin; fleet-fingered and lightning-fast, he is a sight to behold when he plays. He graciously shared the spotlight with his bandmates, notably banjoist Jimmy Mills and fiddler Andy Leftwich, whose fast picking and bowing drew cheers.

Among the highlights in the set was special guest Andy Statman, a clarinetist and noted klezmer artist. In his keepah and tzit-tzits, Statman played the melancholy opening to Ralph Stanley's "The Walls of Time." Also joining Skaggs briefly was opener Stuart, who, along with Skaggs and Statman, played mandolin on a blazing rendition of the instrumental "Rawhide." Skaggs closed his set with "Remember the Cross," harmonizing on the gospel number with guitarist Paul Brewster.

Stuart offered some bluegrass and gospel in his set but was at his best playing raucous honky tonk. Armed with a Telecaster, the well-coifed Stuart and his three-piece band, the Fabulous Superlatives, rocked through such favorites as "Tempted" and "The Whiskey Ain't Workin'." A one-time member of Johnny Cash's band, Stuart spoke fondly of his late friend and performed an original he wrote as a tribute to Cash, the excellent "Dark Bird."

By Mick Stingley

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