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A line-up of greats

PROBABLY the busiest weekend of the local roots calendar takes place this weekend, with a superb choice of music in an eye-catching array of talent, all under the banner of SummerTyne.

ALAN NICHOL reports on a feast of roots music on Tyneside over the coming days

PROBABLY the busiest weekend of the local roots calendar takes place this weekend, with a superb choice of music in an eye-catching array of talent, all under the banner of SummerTyne.

Following hard on the heels of Wynton Marsalis and Glen Campbell, there are four more consecutive nights of world-ranked artists at The Sage, which sees Nanci Griffith, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Kris Kristofferson (in his only UK performance) and then Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder headlining in Hall One.

The weekend also sees the two-day, outdoor, Jumpin’ Hot free stage between noon and 7pm on Saturday and Sunday (between the Sage and the Baltic) plus films and other performances by Laura Viers, Seasick Steve, Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan indoors.

One of the most eagerly anticipated gigs is the Monday night performance by Ricky Skaggs and his red-hot Kentucky Thunder band. Ricky, from Cordell, Kentucky, is credited with single-handedly reviving the bluegrass/country scene in the early 1980s, invoking the spirit of Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers and Flatt & Scruggs.

He played with all three of those acts and made his first appearance alongside Monroe, “the father of bluegrass,” at the age of six. He would later become a full-time member of his band.

I spoke to Ricky last week and he was in no doubt about his most inspirational influence. “It’s got to be Bill Monroe. He took a mandolin and created a whole genre of music. He and his brother Charlie started making records in 1936 for RCA.

“He has been very instrumental in my growth and when I got to play on stage with him as a six-year-old, he took off his mandolin and put it on me. It was a spiritual thing for me.”

Skaggs plays mandolin, of course, but he also plays guitar, banjo and fiddle and is an accomplished singer, writer and producer.

His early days saw him serve his apprenticeship with Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys, JD Crowe & the New South, Boone Creek and the Country Gentlemen.

His debut album as a soloist, Waitin’ For The Sun To Shine, was in 1981 and by the end of the following year he had released four singles, two of which were No1 hits.

He has managed around 20 Top 10 singles (a dozen at No 1), won 12 Grammy awards and gained countless Country Music and International Bluegrass Music awards.

I asked him about his childhood choice of music. “Well, bluegrass, country. When I was a kid I didn’t really know the distinction between them. They’d play the same kind of music on the radio station. You would hear Ray Price, Buck Owens, George Jones, Patsy Cline, people like that, along with the Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe.

“So, I didn’t really see the dividing line. I grew up treating it simply as good music.”

Did the Beatles, Stones or Dylan pass him by? “I got into Dylan later but I got into the Beatles in ’63 when they came over. Their sound was totally brand new. In grade [junior] school I played electric guitar, or tried to, and did songs by the Ventures and we’d do I Wanna Hold Your Hand, too.

“But my dad never really liked that kind of music, so I ended up playing old-time music and gospel. I really gleaned more from the Stanley Brothers, Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs.”

Ricky is also well-known as a member of Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band and he produced her 1980 album Roses In the Snow. Recently, Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder did a string of dates with Bruce Hornsby – a tour which he says was great fun – in support of their collaborative album which has spent 14 consecutive weeks at the top of the bluegrass chart.

He has also just completed a gospel album with his wife, Sharon, a member of the singing group, The Whites, and it is due for an autumn release.

His own latest record, Instrumentals, with Kentucky Thunder, exhibits incredible playing and Skaggs is just as impressed as the audience. “This group of guys meets my approval every night, each and every one of the pickers in Kentucky Thunder totally amazes me in every show. That, to me, outweighs any award we could ever win.”

Is there any time for hobbies in his hectic schedule? “Well, I’m getting back into photography again. I’ve always fooled around with cameras. One of these days I may publish some of my stuff. There will be three or four of my photos on the new Whites/Ricky Skaggs gospel album!”

The last time Ricky was in the UK was with Reba McEntire and Brad Paisley “six or eight years ago”. This time he and the band do five UK dates and one in Ireland and he comes to the Sage direct from headlining the Sunday night at the Cambridge Folk Festival. Ticket info and returns availability on (0191) 443 4661.

TOMORROW night, the soul-to-gospel Blind Boys of Alabama play one of only two UK shows (the other is at WOMAD at Reading) when they take to the Sage’s Hall One stage. For longevity, this group beats all others into the proverbial cocked hat as they were founded in 1939! Two of the original line-up, Clarence Fountain and Jimmy Carter (not that one), are still on board and they are not slowing down, either. From their Booker T Jones-produced Deep River album in 1992, the Boys have knocked out regular albums, culminating in their current release, Atom Bomb. Collaborators like Ben Harper, Mavis Staples, Aaron Neville, David Hidalgo (Los Lobos) and blues harpist Charlie Musselwhite have all helped out in the recent past.

SUNDAY sees the only UK show for Kris Kristofferson. KK has plenty to tell from an extraordinary life. The Rhodes scholar turned down a teaching job at the US Military Academy to become... a janitor at Columbia Records! Why? Well, his burning ambition was to become a songwriter and that, by a fairly unorthodox route, is what he became with standards-in-the-making like Me & Bobby McGee and Sunday Morning Coming Down. His latest record, This Old Road, is his first studio offering in 11 years.

THE feast of music fills every conceivable hour of the weekend with the aforementioned Jumpin’ Hot outdoor stage featuring Richmond Fontaine, John Miller, Jackie Leven and more tomorrow, while Sunday has Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike, the Endrick Brothers, Bill Kirchen and Shawn Lee’s Soul Visa among a full day of roots sounds.

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