When Ricky Skaggs climbs into the saddle with Kentucky Thunder, it’s a mighty rush and flurry, and that power stands as a classic demonstration of how fiery bluegrass can be. Yet bluegrass also embraces a soft sweetness that seems polemic. As counterintuitive as it may seem to his highly kinetic picking, when Skaggs joins his wife of 26 years Sharon, her father Buck and her sister Cheryl on Salt Of The Earth, it’s the gentler, more contemplative side of Appalachian roots music that is embraced and explored.
There’s an easiness to the music here that underscores the classic gospel and timeless-love-as-uniter themes being served. Voices that have known each other from three decades of singing around the house, the studio, and the road create an instant intimacy which is both inherent and comfortable. Whether it’s the staunch gospel of “Near The Cross” or the standin’-by-my-family “This Old House”, featuring Buck’s hickory-strength lead singing, this isn’t witness so much as people offering up their truth in song.
Nowhere is that more obvious than on Ferlin Huskey’s loping “Wings of A Dove”. In most hands, the song is merely a tired cliché one step removed from “Amazing Grace” or “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”, but as the familiar notes unspool, it becomes a jubilant testimonial of salvation and renewal shared from a most personal perspective. Skaggs’ mountain tenor is smooth, supple and exultant. He is quietly inspiring and shimmering in the moment.
While Salt Of The Earth is in many cases standard fare, minimally arranged and adroitly played, the songs are tendered with a quiet conviction that shores up the music. It’s infused with the love of the people making it, and there is cozy reassurance in every note. In an uncertain world, that’s perhaps the most precious commodity of all, and one that can’t be faked.