Before ever having released an album sporting his name as the top-billed player, Ricky Skaggs had already performed alongside Ralph Stanley, Flatt and Scruggs, J.D. Crowe and Emmylou Harris. Spanning bluegrass’ history, Skaggs also had the fortune to live through the early rock era’s pinnacle. Drawing from fifties and sixties styled players wouldn’t really impact his performances until a bit later in his career, but perhaps it prodded Skaggs to take up electric guitar after having already mastered mandolin and fiddle. Armed with the ability to perform any instrument he’d need to include on an album, Skaggs set out as a band leader, jettisoning his ensemble Boone Creek, and issued 1979’s “Sweet Temptation.” The album drew from uptempo string-focused compositions while still displaying some of Skaggs’ soft-core country songs, as on a version of Dolly Parton’s “Put It Off Until Tomorrow.” Closing the album out with a quick-step bluegrass number hinted at what would come next on Skaggs’ collaboration with guitarist Tony Rice the following year. Opening that effort with the Carter Family’s “Bury Me Beneath The Weeping Willow” found the pair mining country and bluegrass history, drawing from Bill Monroe as much as the American songbook. With sporadic forays into more rock-centric fare, occasionally dispensing tunes religious in nature, last year’s “Mosaic” upped the Jesus-ante with songs focused on shepherds and overflowing cups. Granted, “Talk About Suffering” from the aforementioned duet-album with Rice discusses religious concerns. And while the Spirit seems to be present on a huge number of country and bluegrass albums, the relatively oppressive nature of track after track of worship tunes could scare off fans more interested in musicianship than message. Regardless, getting the chance to witness one of bluegrass’ most enduring talents should mitigate any argument against faith. (Dave Cantor)
July 31 at the Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 North Lincoln, (773)728-6000. 5pm & 8pm. $38.