The author dives into the who’s who of saving bluegrass | Entertainment/Life

Highways and Heartaches: How Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart, and Children of the New South Saved the Soul of Country Music by Michael Streissguth, Hachette Books, 304 pages

The title of Streisgut’s 10th country music book is the same as that of platinum-selling Ricky Skaggs’ 1982 album, and is thus a tribute to the mandolinist and singer who promised Bill Monroe he would never leave bluegrass to die. Monroe is revered by fans as the father of this genre of mountain music that developed in the 1940s in the Appalachians.

Although Skaggs and Stewart are given equal time in the detailed comparison of their musical development and evolution, the title gives an indication of the author’s judgment of which star did the most to save the soul of country music. Skaggs has never strayed too far from his early bluegrass identity, formed by playing with the Stanley Brothers, and has been recognized as the face of bluegrass in recent decades.

Stewart, however, plays a significant role in the conservation of bluegrass. The musicians of the 1980s and 1990s, with whom he often collaborated, helped him merge traditional country music with rockabilly and blues. This prevented the capitulation to rock that the record companies were insisting on in their efforts to attract younger audiences and record buyers.

Similarly, his collaboration with Travis Tritt and association with Johnny Cash’s band allowed him to maintain his bluegrass identity while introducing him and the music to a wider audience.

Also of great importance was Stewart’s successful crusade to save the Grand Ole Opry’s original home, the Ryman Auditorium, when it was threatened with demolition. After moving into Opryland quarters, which are more spacious, modern and comfortable than the original Opry theater in a former church building, the owners saw no advantage in keeping the old building. Stewart was among the most vocal and active conservationists who protested and prevailed in saving it.

Skaggs and Stewart’s early musical experiences have many similarities, as Streisut explains. They both come from musical families where both parents play country music and are proficient on several instruments. Precocious in his mastery of instruments essential to country music, Skaggs mastered the mandolin well enough to allow him to play and sing on stage with Monroe when he was only 6. Stewart was an early master of the guitar and mandolin and, similarly of Skaggs, plays in his family’s band, which plays for church and community events.

Stewart’s professional career began at the age of 14 when he was invited to join Leicester Flatt’s band. Although his parents insisted that he finish school first, they reluctantly gave permission when they realized that music was paramount in his life. Skaggs joined Ralph Stanley’s band in 1970 while he was 20 years old.

Streissguth’s exhaustive study chronicles the years they spent with their respective bands and other groups as they embarked on their solo careers.

Long before Skaggs and Stewart hit the scene, the survival of bluegrass was in jeopardy. With the emergence of Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers and other early rockers in the 1950s, Nashville and country music experienced a crisis that seriously challenged the livelihood of traditional artists and the viability of country labels. In the following decades, producers introduced a series of country music subgenres, including The Nashville Sound and Countrypolitan, in their efforts to sell records and develop new stars.

While the Opry Company continued to play the older music to its loyal WSM audience, many of its performers were aging. Thus, the critical issue was to find younger musicians who would capture an audience that appreciated the talent and vibrancy that had always been associated with bluegrass. This is where Skaggs and Stewart found their role as the “saviors” around whom Streisgut built his book.

Although the focus is on Skaggs and Stewart, the reader will find in this 304-page book extended forays into the social, political, and cultural life of the time he is writing about. It gives a look at the music industry in recent decades and talks about the other “children of the South” to which its subtitle refers.

An interesting sidelight delves into the family dynamic that produced two popular Country Music Hall of Famers, Skaggs and Stewart.

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