Music review: ‘Cluck Ol’ Hen’

August 31, 2013 

  • Country Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby Cluck Ol’ Hen

When bluegrass mandolinist Ricky Skaggs and rock pianist Bruce Hornsby played together at Durham’s Carolina Theatre in 2008, they proved that the separation of their musical styles is a frame of mind rather than an artistic imperative.

“Cluck Ol’ Hen,” recorded live on that tour, has the two brilliant and versatile artists making music as exciting as it is stylistically expansive. While piano is not a traditional bluegrass instrument, it is often used in old-time music, which is one of the taproots of bluegrass. In a less direct way, piano fits the bluegrass idiom as “hillbilly jazz.”

The CD cleverly, and forthrightly, begins with the artists taking the stage to a robust round of boos from a skeptical and unwelcoming audience. Skaggs and Hornsby comment on the icy reception, then kick into a smoldering version of the Stanley Brothers’ standard, “How Mountain Girls Can Love.” The ice is broken, and the boos morph into enthusiastic applause.

Nineteen tracks alternate between bluegrass classics and Hornsby originals. Bluegrass tracks feature Bill Monroe’s “Toy Heart,” “Darling Corey” and “Bluegrass Breakdown,” and the Stanley Brothers’ “Little Maggie.”

Hornsby’s contributions include “White Wheeled Limousine,” “The Way it Is,” “The Dreaded Spoon” and “Gulf of Mexico Fishing Boat Blues.”

Throughout, the bluegrass spirit soars with the backing of Skaggs’ award-winning band, Kentucky Thunder, featuring Durham’s Jim Mill on five-string banjo. Skaggs and Hornsby clearly enjoy the collaboration. And diehards who cringe at any deviation from bluegrass “purity” may find a new way to enjoy the music in the company of two creative, passionate players.

Correspondent Jack Bernhardt

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