Reviewed by Henry L. Carrigan Jr.
In 2007, pop pianist and vocalist Hornsby joined forces with bluegrass maestro Ricky Skaggs to record the well-received "Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby." Following its release, the two hit the road in support of their album, winning new fans and warming hearts of loyal fans with a blend of Skaggs' furious mandolin picking and Hornsby's sparkling, rapid-fire piano runs. Debuting at number one on Billboard's Bluegrass Charts the day it was released, "Cluck Ol' Hen" captures the high-energy, foot-stompin' performances of that tour; as Skaggs says, "We recorded quite a few of the live performances of our tour and came up with a really great merging of two different styles."
The album kicks off with the spirited, can't-sit-still, bluegrass breakdown, How Mountain Girls Can Love, with Skaggs and Hornsby playing a call-and-response instrumental bridge with mandolin and piano. The duo then launches into Bill Monroe's Toy Heart, capturing the high lonesomeness of the classic with Hornsby's cascading piano runs and Skaggs' lightning mandolin chops; Skaggs' torrid mandolin picking kicks off Monroe's Bluegrass Breakdown, another jump-out-of-your-seat-and-dance moment. Extended jams of Hornsby's The Way It Is and White Wheeled Limousine give Skaggs, Hornsby and the members of Skaggs' band, Kentucky Thunder, a chance to stretch out and explore new musical avenues, recreating each of these signature Hornsby songs with the freedom and improvisation that underlies bluegrass and jazz. The album closes with the humorous Cluck Ol' Hen, a Celtic-tinged fiddle reel that dances off the stage.
"Cluck Ol' Hen" captures the great fun that Skaggs and Hornsby had playing these shows, the ways they invite the audience into their musical circle with their jokes and introductions to the songs, and the energetic spirit that drives these performances in which the musicians and the music become one.