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Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder

Country Gentleman, The Best of Ricky Skaggs – 1998 (Sony Legacy)

Reviewed by Jon Weisberger

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CDs by Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder

Ricky Skaggs hit the Billboard Top 40 in 1981 with Flatt & Scruggs' "Don't Get Above Your Raising" and proceeded to tear up the charts for the next five years, during which almost every one of his singles went to Number One. With a fresh sound that could rock out as easily as it could evoke past classics - not surprising, given his dual background as a bluegrass child prodigy and a member of Emmylou Harris' Hot Band - Skaggs was the perfect antidote to the bland side of the Urban Cowboy fad sweeping country radio. By 1985, he had joined the Grand Ole Opry (at the time the youngest person ever to do so) and won multiple CMA awards, including the top Entertainer of the Year honor.

The second half of the 1980's was difficult for Skaggs. Though charting regularly, his releases peaked below the Top 10, not in it; with less chart success, he got weaker material to work with, and he wasn't willing to make radical adjustments to his sound to chase after a newer audience. By the time he found a new audience for his country style and, almost simultaneously, began to play again the bluegrass he grew up with, his contract with Epic was over, and he had moved on to new labels.

This collection might better have been titled "biggest hits," for it brings together every one of the singles that charted for Skaggs between 1981 and 1992, and none that didn't - not even his Grammy-winning instrumental, Bill Monroe's "Wheel Hoss."

Skaggs' very best country work - and, mind you, none of it was bad - was stacked up on his first few albums, where virtually every cut was a winner; a real "best of" would have fewer of the late singles and more of the groundbreaking work from his early albums. Still, this will remind you both of how great a singer (and picker) Skaggs is, and of how great his impact was at a time when country radio was in need of some real help.