From the hills of Kentucky, bluegrass came to Ricky Skaggs the way hitting a baseball came to Ken Griffey, Jr., he was born to do it. After touring with bluegrass legends like Ralph Stanley as a teenager, Skaggs was signed in 1980 to a record deal with Epic Records where he virtually started the new-traditionalist movement with his blend of traditional sounds with modern production and pop flourishes. Ricky became a huge star in the 1980s but returned to bluegrass after his songs stopped regularly appearing on the country charts. Recorded exclusively for the Cracker Barrel Coutry Store and Restaurant, “The High Notes” is Ricky taking a bluegrass approach to his mainstream country hits.
The record starts off with Ricky’s first number one hit record, “Crying My Heart Out Over You.” Instead of steel and electric guitar solos, we are greeted with classy fiddle and mandolin picking. Vocally Skaggs is as good as he was back then and maybe a little bit better since bluegrass singers seem to get better with age (and wisdom). It’s a heart wrenching song that sounds natural in the acoustic bluegrass setting. With his latest bluegrass albums Ricky Skaggs has seemingly melded traditional bluegrass mores with modern musical accessories and on “Heartbroke” he wisely realized the song wouldn’t work if it didn’t feature drums. In addition to the drums, Ricky utilizes the Dobro in place of the steel guitar and it’s an up-tempo bluegrass stomp that takes this early 1980s track and turns it into bluegrass gold.
While most of the songs on “The High Notes” were classic hits from Skaggs’ country music catalog, “Cats in the Cradle” wasn’t. As a song that barely made the Top 50, Ricky must just really love this Harry Chapin classic. The production is stellar with multiple fiddles, and cello creating an interesting acoustic orchestral arrangement that still is firmly rooted in bluegrass. “Somebody’s Prayin’” starts out with the Piano and it’s such a vocally stunning song from Ricky that showcases Ricky’s gospel roots. The fiddle playing is immaculate and the full orchestra backing Ricky is a little different from bluegrass traditions but it works here as a brilliant album closing track.
Ricky Skaggs may have returned to bluegrass when radio gave up on him but that doesn’t mean he still isn’t making superb music. “The High Notes” is a wonderful way to refresh Ricky’s ‘greatest’ catalog hits.