Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder put on a clinic in classic bluegrass at The Ark


Ricky Skaggs

He is just so good. They are all just so good.

Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder played The Ark on Saturday, March 3, for a concert to benefit the Breakfast at St. Andrews. And the sold-out crowd enjoyed an absolutely first-rate bluegrass show that transported the spirit of Kentucky fully intact to Ann Arbor.

Lisa Tucker-Gray did a short opening set and served as MC for the night. A talented musician, Tucker-Gray is also the daughter of Svea Gray, who founded the free-breakfast program in 1982 and who was in the audience Saturday. She was followed by Nathan Bell, an excellent singer-songwriter who offered a number of compelling original works -- “Really Truly” is a touching look at the continuing importance of marriage in the modern era -- along with a terrific version of “Sittin’ on Top of the World.”

Skaggs began his career as a musical prodigy -- an interesting side note Saturday was the story of how his father bought young Ricky his first mandolin at a pawn shop in Midland, Michigan -- and now at age 63, his playing is incredibly fiery yet always precise. Although he switched to guitar for a few songs Saturday, the mandolin remains his primary instrument, and it’s hard to imagine anyone putting it to better, more powerful use.

Skaggs brought along the latest incarnation of his band, Kentucky Thunder, now an all-acoustic group including three guitars, banjo, fiddle, and upright bass. When you’re an acclaimed, established musician of Skaggs’ stature, you can hire the very best, and that’s what he’s done. Every member of the ensemble was fully on point Saturday, whether playing a solo or absolutely locked in together.

“Country Boy” led things off, followed by one of several instrumentals that let the band members fully display their chops, even when the tempos reached seemingly impossible speeds. “Highway 40 Blues” was an emotional highlight early on.

Mid-set, the band played several songs in tribute to Bill Monroe, while Skaggs related how the late bluegrass great gave him his first break by bringing him on stage to perform. The Stanley Brothers’ “Rank Stranger” was another well-received nod to the past, while “Love Does it Every Time” displayed Skaggs’ own songwriting abilities.

Throughout the concert, Skaggs’ singing rang clear and true, but he also found time to showcase the vocal talents of two of his bandmates. Dennis Parker offered a stunning, heartfelt cover of James Taylor’s “Carolina on My Mind,” while Paul Brewster sang an affecting rendition of “Kentucky Waltz.”  

Even after all that, the band wasn’t nearly done. Saturday would have been the 95th birthday of Doc Watson, and the band offered a mini tribute including “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down,” “Tennessee Stud,” and a gorgeous a cappella “Down in the Valley to Pray.”

After the close of the regular set brought the enthusiastic crowd to its feet, Skaggs brought all the evening’s performers back on stage together for a sing-along version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” It was a fitting ending to a memorable night of music.

Bob Needham is a freelance writer and the former arts & entertainment editor of The Ann Arbor News and AnnArbor.com.