A quick glance at the Ricky Skaggs record shelf confirms it: "Brand New Strings" has the highest concentration of contemporary material on it since 1997's "Life Is a Journey," which coincidentally was his last album aimed at the mainstream country market prior to his headlong return to bluegrass.
While the degree of musicianship and energy Skaggs invested in his bluegrass revival was indeed thrilling, could he really be satisfied playing revved-up versions of Bill Monroe and Stanley Brothers chestnuts for the rest of his life? Easily his most forward-thinking disk in some time, this is a curiously transitional effort, designed to remind the world of the way Skaggs once took modern material and elevated it with subtle traditional touches.While rich with well-considered, exact performances, the music rises and falls on the strength of the songwriting and Skaggs' ability to choose songs worthy of his abilities. It's no mean feat: simple nostalgic toss-offs won't support the dignity of his unflinching sincerity, while more topical, modern compositions deflect and undermine the rootsy instrumentation Skaggs uses here. "Brand New Strings" has its share of mis-steps, but its best moments suggest a fertile, compelling synthesis of Skaggs' bluegrass foundations, contemporary studio technique, and songwriting savvy that simply was not evidenced in his more traditionally-minded bluegrass releases.
First the bad news: "Spread a Little Love Around" is so corny that it crosses over into radioactive Cracker Barrel surrealism. Hyperactive speed-guitar and mandolin licks detract somewhat from the rock-solid rhythms underpinning the great opener "Sally Jo" (the only real oldie on the set). Ride out the miscues, though, and the rewards are great. "If I Had It All Again To Do" is simply one of Skaggs finest moments ever, a powerfully resonant song by Blue Highway's Shawn Lane boasting a poignant vocal, gently understated acoustic instrumentation and haunting electric guitar arpeggios embroidering the aching portrait the song paints. Almost equal is a forceful, unapologetic retake of his country-era "My Father's Son."
The unabashed nostalgia that fueled Skaggs' return to bluegrass has blossomed into something new here. You can still call it bluegrass, but at its best it has a distinctly contemporary presence, handily reinforcing Skaggs towering relevance in this flashy era of belly-button rings, alt-country poseurs, and tepid contempo-grass.