In his introduction of a bluegrass version of “The Way It Is” on Friday night, Bruce Hornsby noted that his 1986 pop hit has been sampled by hip-hop artists including Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg and Mase. Hornsby’s freewheeling cross-genre collaboration with Ricky Skaggs didn’t feature any rapping, but an ambitious array of American music was performed during the two-hour concert.
An audience of about 1,200 at Johnson County Community College’s Yardley Hall witnessed the two stars explore the connections between bluegrass, pop, country, rock and old-timey Appalachian music. Backed by Skaggs’ six-piece band Kentucky Thunder, Hornsby and Skaggs traded compelling stories and innovative ideas.
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Skaggs recalled sitting in with a band led by Bill Monroe, the man known as “the father of bluegrass,” when he was just 6 years old. After becoming a force in the bluegrass community, Skaggs scored a string of country hits in the 1980s. He brought bluegrass to the masses with hits like “Country Boy.”
“I love bluegrass,” Skaggs said. “Everything I do has a little bit of bluegrass in it.”
Hornsby can’t be pinned down quite as easily. His jazz leanings, bright voice and penchant for lush arrangements make him the American version of Sting.
The clean-cut pianist has spent much of his career inserting himself into unlikely settings, including logging more than 100 concerts with the Grateful Dead. With his full head of gray hair and stocky frame, Skaggs bears a slight resemblance to the Dead’s Jerry Garcia. Several selections, including a wonderfully loose take on “White-Wheeled Limousine,” evoked the cosmic acoustic forays of the Dead.
The introduction of a piano into bluegrass is heretical in a genre that reveres tradition. Yet Hornsby’s playing on bluegrass standards including “Uncle Pen” was so seamless that he made the instrument seem as if it had always been part of the form.
His contribution to “Darling Corey” was far more daring. Hornsby’s startling embellishments managed to link the seminal folk ensemble the Carter Family to jazz pianist Art Tatum.
While never less than impeccable, the musicians improvised sparingly. Only bassist Scott Mulvahill seemed to share Hornsby’s penchant for jazz.
Like athletes who occasionally take plays off to rest, the musicians’ efforts on a few selections lacked the urgent sense of exploration that characterized the evening’s best moments. The result, consequently, more often resembled conventional bluegrass with jazz accents than groundbreaking hillbilly jazz.