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Ricky Skaggs (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)

Bluegrass bridge

Music | Artists show their range with new albums

Issue: "All tied up," Sept. 24, 2011

If the rapid fracturing of pop music into mutually exclusive genres has you asking whether the "universal language" has entered its Tower of Babel-onian phase, three recent albums may help you. The answer, as long as one is fluent in bluegrass, is no.

For Ricky Skaggs-who after hitting an artistic peak last year with Mosaic has another Christmas album in the pipeline and has never shown an aversion to the repackaging of his hits-the urge to mark time with yet another best-of must have been strong. So it's to his credit that with Country Hits Bluegrass Style (Skaggs Family) he has only partially given in.

As someone with almost as many bluegrass Grammys to his name as the country kind, Skaggs probably could've stripped down "Highway 40 Blues," "Country Boy," "Honey (Open That Door)," and "Cryin' My Heart Out Over You" in his sleep. Instead, he's played them the way he might've done for friends at Kentucky shindigs and not for major-label honchos with dollar signs where their ears should be.

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But it's not the fiddles, banjos, dobros, and mandolins that come to the fore so much as the vocal harmonies. From the way they simultaneously deepen and elevate the romantically bittersweet "You've Got a Lover," you'd never guess that Skaggs has been happily married for 29 years. And from the way the absence of vocal harmonies and bluegrass instruments allows "Somebody's Prayin'" to become the album's most heartfelt performance, it seems Skaggs is over his irritation at getting booted from bluegrass-Grammy consideration every time he records with a piano.

What makes Skaggs' album "conversant" with Heirloom Music by the Wronglers and Jimmie Dale Gilmore is the presence on both albums of "Uncle Pen," a 1956 Bill Monroe song that was a hit for Skaggs in 1984. Gilmore and the Wronglers perform it more with an ear toward capturing the spirit of rural Kentucky from the end of the Civil War through the Great Depression-the period during which the song's subject, Monroe's fiddler uncle James Pendleton Vandiver, lived.

Faithfully reproducing the sepia-tinted sounds of a bygone era was apparently the intent of Gilmore (an Austin-based roots musician with mystical tendencies and an impressive résumé both as a solo artist and as a member of the Flatlanders). He's joined by Warren Hellman, a high-profile venture capitalist who also happens to be a banjo-playing Wrongler and a benefactor of San Francisco's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, when they embarked upon the Heirloom Music project.

They've succeeded. Covering songs by the Carter Family, Charlie Poole, and unknown authors identified these days only by "trad., they make the past seem like the present if not necessarily the future. Wistful remorse is the predominant emotion, but by ending with a rendition of Harry McClintock's vision of a hobo's paradise, "Big Rock Candy Mountain," they end on a note of wistful hope.

On Rare Bird Alert (Rounder), Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin) and the Steep Canyon Rangers cover neither "Uncle Pen" nor any other venerable standard unless Martin's 1978 novelty hit "King Tut" counts. But each of the 13 originals, 10 of which Martin wrote and the other three of which he co-wrote, feature the expert and enthusiastic deployment of dueling banjos, pickin' and grinnin', and other bluegrass trademarks.

About the grinnin'-would it be a Steve Martin album without grinnin'?-the live "Atheists Don't Have No Songs" is not only hilarious but also a backhanded compliment to the faith Martin almost seems he wishes he had.

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