2003: Ricky Skaggs - The Three Pickers (with Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson)
Ricky Skaggs once told the joke:
"How many Bluegrass musicians does it take to change a light bulb? Four. One to change the light bulb and three to complain that light bulbs are electric."
In many ways, such a joke defines bluegrass music. It's a genre that mingles spectacular banjo rushes with voices and rhythms that seem as old as Appalachia. Though Bluegrass extracts elements of Irish and Scottish folk music, the finger picking styles and lyrical tales of America's mountains and rivers reflect a craft that's uniquely American.
On The Three Pickers, three of American music's greats appear together for one legendary performance in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, and Ricky Skaggs sound both stoic and gentle, playing a combination of original works and traditional American folk songs. While introducing the poignant "Who Will Sing for Me?", Ricky Skaggs, the youngest member of the trio (by several decades), recounts the boyhood years he spent listening to his stage-mates on the radio. This notion of mutual admiration and friendship is a recurrent theme throughout the recording; and while the "Divas" concerts of recent years showcased the vocal duels of pop stars, the Three Pickers seamlessly meld their melodies, with the picking talents of each man equally well dispersed and showcased with Skaggs' flexibly switching from mandolin to guitar and banjoon, Earl's trademark banjo, and Doc's flat-pick guitar.
In addition to performing as a trio, a number of distinguished guests are invited to the stage. Doc Watson and grandson Richard flat pick two traditional folk numbers, "Walk On Boy" and "Daybreak Blues." Later, Earl Scruggs is joined by his son Gary to perform the exhilarating banjo technique he invented as a member of Bill Monroe's band in the 1940s. The contrast between Doc and Earl's approaches to Bluegrass is clear, yet they serve to illustrate the profound and diverse contributions each has made to American music. In spectacular fashion, Kentucky Thunder emerges to the stage to accompany Ricky Skaggs in a roaring rendition of "Ridin' That Midnight Train." Alison Krauss also joins the pickers for three numbers, including the noir standard "The Banks of the Ohio."
Despite their distinguished accompanists, the Three Pickers are at their best when they alone occupy the stage. Their shared presence evokes an air of genuine American heritage. While their voices are flatter now than in the past, their fingers are still able to lead the way. The album's strongest effort, "Who Will Sing For Me?", is a confluence of an old man's lamenting wonders and merry picking rhythms. It's difficult not to shake the feeling that these men are challenging us to maintain the tradition they all but created.
Although it's clear that a healthy and supportive crowd is on hand, the trio evokes the feel of a small mountain promenade. Skaggs, who handles the majority of the on-stage banter, creates an intimate setting that lures both the crowd and remote listener to his side. Contrary to the wild banjo picking that awes even the most passive bluegrass listener, this collection contains mostly slower, soulful tunes. The Three Pickers should not be regarded as a capstone event for Bluegrass Music because these three men do nothing to demand a spotlight. This is a recording of three masters, or better yet, three friends who love to share the subtlety of their craft with an audience and each other.