IT'S NOT enough that Ricky Skaggs plays impeccable mandolin, fiddle, banjo and guitar. He also sings with a pure tenor and chooses his material with a care and devotion that would make a haute couture designer jealous. "Waiting for the Sun to Shine" (Epic FE37193) is a breezy and utterly delightful compendium of bluegrass passion, old-time country wit, sly western swing and mountain harmonies.
George Hay, the Solemn Old Judge who ran the Grand Ole Opry, used to advise performers, "Keep it down to earth, boys!" Skaggs has gone the Judge one better: Rooting his energies and inspiration solidly in the past, he's managed to keep his ears in the present. The result is an album that speaks across the traditionally limited boundaries of bluegrass and more importantly, country. Without sacrificing integrity, Skaggs has eased the pure, aching vocals endemic to bluegrass, gently jazzed up the arrangements with Nashville-before-it-went-uptown finesse and pulled them into the warmth of his virtuosity.
"Waiting for the Sun" is a country album with many differences, not the least of which is Skaggs' lovely tenor. His singing is never forced or theatrical, much less in the macho modernist school. Skaggs is strong and self-assured, effortlessly moving through the Stanley Brothers' "If That's the Way You Feel" or Sonny Throckmorton's title cut, whose languid melodic hook sounds like prime Neil Young. "Low and Lonely" is a subtly insistent slice of western swing, while the harmless sexist wordplay of "So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed" is toned-down rockabilly swing.
A number of the tunes, "Your Old Love Letters," "Crying My Heart Out Over You" and "Lost to a Stranger," echo the familiar personal pains of country music. The arrangements are chock-full of Bruce Bouton's steel guitar or Bobby Hicks' fiddle, yet never lapse into the schlocky modernization with which Nashville lost its soul and integrity. "Stranger" is a quintessential bar song in which the protagonist loses his girl to a more lively stranger who literally sweeps her off her feet and out the door. It shouldn't work, but it does -- because Ricky Skaggs makes you believe. On "You May See Me Walkin," the singer is tough and hurt where most people would play it tough and macho.
A number of the songs on this album are very ordinary country and bluegrass tunes elevated not only by Skaggs' sense of conviction, but by his sterling production. His trademark harmonies, mostly two-part with Sharon White (and several with himself through the wonders of multi-tracking) are sprinkled throughout the album, a warm counterpoint to the tight, unobtrusive playing of the band. "Don't Get Above Your Raising," an old Flatt and Scruggs tune that's already high on the country charts, is ressurected with a punchy arrangement that's perked up by Jerry Douglas' biting dobro. Skaggs sounds like an animated James Taylor here, and his mountain-flavored singing snaps out of the record's grooves as refreshing as a mountain stream. It's a sound that may never provoke platimum sales but offers the more lasting reward of honest art.
Ralph and Carter Stanley were the most important musical influence on the young Ricky Skaggs. Their recording career began in 1947 and few years have passed without a Stanley offering of some sort, though Carter died in 1966. The brothers were responsible for some of the most beautiful harmony vocals in bluegrass history and Ralph Stanley has remained as fiercely traditional in his approach as Bill Monroe. "The Stanley Sound Today" (Rebel REB-1601) is not top-of-the-line Stanley, but it offers some fine performances and fiery instrumentals. Among the outstanding tunes drawn from the deep Stanley song well are "Could You Love Me One More Time," "How Could I Dream Such A Dream" and "The Letter I Never Mailed," another offering in the long tradition of letter-to-the-loved-one songs prevelant in both bluegrass and country.
There's also the topical gospel song, "No Schoolbus In Heaven," and the hour-of-redemption spiritual, in this case the Stanley Brothers' own classic "Darkest Hour." Ralph Stanley is still an excellent banjo player, but his voice shows a bit of wear; the high lonesome harmonies with Charlie Sizemore are passable, not memorable. For the most part, guitarist Junior Blankenship and fiddler Curly Ray Cline keep things moving at a preposterous pace, which excuses the weaker cuts on the album, including "Jimmie Brown the Newsboy." Hearing Stanley, one can sense the appeal of his music to a young Kentucky boy 20 years ago, but the inspirational moments on "The Stanley Sound Today" are far less frequent than on earlier efforts. It's worth searching out the reissues of classic Stanley Brothers material on the King, County and Rebel labels.