RICKY SKAGGS may have made his commercial mark in mainstream country music, but his roots have always been solidly anchored in bluegrass: the high-lonesome, hard-driving, acoustic mountain music pioneered by legendary artists like Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley.
Skaggs' emotional and spiritual connection to the bluegrass idiom has never been more dramatically or lovingly presented than it was at "The Ricky Skaggs Pickin' Party," a four-hour musical extravaganza at Pier Six Pavilion last night.
Hosted and emceed by Skaggs, the "Pickin' Party" featured a rather extraordinary lineup of bluegrass luminaries who represented three generations of the music's traditions. Skaggs' guest stars ran the gamut from dusty relics of bluegrass' formative years in the 1940s, like Ralph Stanley (in whose band Skaggs more or less got his start a couple of decades ago), all the way to neophytes like Alison Krauss, a Grammy-winning young singer and fiddle champion whose lovely voice is reminiscent of a young Dolly Parton.
And there were more -- many more -- in the evening's star-studded cast: acoustic guitar virtuoso Tony Rice (a former bandmate and frequent duet partner of Skaggs), J.D. Crowe, Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys (Monroe himself, the acknowledged "father" of bluegrass, was scheduled to perform but was sidelined by a recent heart operation), dobro wizard Jerry Douglass (who turned in an evocative solo instrumental mini-set), and Skaggs' wife, singer Sharon White.
Most of these musicians have not only recorded together and been in various bands together over the years; they've also clearly drawn their inspiration from the same wells. Hence, there was an easy familiarity and affection among the players that gave the evening the gentle ambiance of an old-time gospel hour and enhanced the already remarkable overall level of musicianship.
In a tribute to Monroe, who has always been a mentor and major influence in Skaggs' music, Skaggs led Monroe's Bluegrass Boys through a spirited set that, of course, included "Uncle Pen," an old Monroe classic that Skaggs himself revitalized and turned into a chart-topping hit all over again just a few years back.
Skaggs played a short set with his own excellent eight-piece band, Kentucky Thunder, and a brief acoustic solo set that reprised country hits from his own career, like "Heartbroke, "Cajun Moon" and Country Boy." And he seemed to be virtually everywhere in the course of the evening. He played with nearly everyone and was constantly switching from fiddle to mandolin to guitar as he willingly relinquished the spotlight to his guests and reverted to the role he knew so well in his pre-star years: that of the hot-pickin' bluegrass sideman.
Kevin Brown, of the Pavilion's public relations office, estimated the crowd at more than 2,000.