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Skaggs family "grass up" the holidays at the Ryman

Skaggs family "grass up" the holidays at the Ryman

Welcome to our living room," Ricky Skaggs told the audience after opening the Skaggs Family Christmas show with a stately, letter-perfect reading of the Tex Logan classic "Christmas Time's A-Comin'." And if it was hard at the start to see how a stage strewn with microphones, monitors, music stands and instruments resembled anyone's living room, by the show's end, more than a few sitting in the Ryman's pews doubtless were convinced. Take away the monitors and, it seems, this might be pretty much what it's like at the Skaggs family homes—a whole lot of music, and a lot of spontaneous enjoyment of homegrown talent.

The cast consisted of Skaggs, The Whites (Ricky's wife Sharon, her sister Cheryl and their dad Buck) and a third generation of the sisters' children (Ricky and Sharon's Molly and Luke, Cheryl's Rachel)—plus an enhanced version of Skaggs' band Kentucky Thunder. Augmented, in the second set, by the Nashville String Machine, this second annual holiday assemblage was a delightfully varied, eclectic affair that ranged from bluegrass through Western swing to what Skaggs called a "Broadway" arrangement of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

Skaggs has been such a fervent bearer of the bluegrass torch in recent years that it's easy to forget just how wide-ranging his talents, taste and musical history are. For insiders, there were reminders embedded in selections like "Children Go Where I Send Thee," a number that Skaggs got from Ralph Stanley some 30 years ago and recorded with The Whites at the height of his mainstream country career. There also was "Light of the Stable," the title track of a late-'70s Christmas album recorded by Emmylou Harris to which Ricky, Sharon and Cheryl contributed, along with "New Star Shining," a song written by John and Johanna Hall that Skaggs recorded in the late '80s.

This eclecticism was underlined by The Whites, who are arguably the most underappreciated act in Nashville. Equally adept at grassy, acoustic country and at an easygoing, Western-flavored swing, the trio have impeccable harmonies and two flexible, expressive lead singers in Sharon and Cheryl. And it's impossible to say for sure whether their dad Buck is a wittier, more accomplished mandolin or piano player; his offering of Grandpa Jones' recitation "The Christmas Guest" summoned up the ghosts of more than a few Christmases past.

The real revelation of the evening, though, came from the newest generation of Skaggses and Whites. If they're not as advanced, career-wise, as their parents were at their age, they're not far behind in the development of their gifts, and they appear to be every bit as "ate up" with music as their elders were. They've been given free reign to explore their inclinations, too, whether that means Molly's lap dulcimer playing, Rachel's classic (and classy) uptown take on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" or the tasteful baritone guitar parts that Luke scattered throughout the show.

Growing out of a 2003 bus mishap that left Ricky, Sharon, Molly and Luke to entertain an Atlanta audience by themselves, the Skaggs Family Christmas bypassed Nashville last year, so this was the first opportunity locals had to catch the show. For those who did, the experience was warm, enjoyable and inspirational, enough to suggest that its origin just might have had a touch of providence.

—Jon Weisberger

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