It was a rare treat to see two such guitar greats as Ry Cooder and Ricky Skaggs on the same local stage - and that is what the Keswick offered on a rainy Thursday night. Sharon White, spouse of Skaggs and a fine singer/stringer in her own right, was on hand, as well.
Cooder is a jack of all music - blues, funk, rock, trad-Cuban. Skaggs is a master of bluegrass-country cool. So is White, a vocalist for gospel family harmonists the Whites. But there was even more: Sharon's singing sister Cheryl; their dad, bluegrass piano legend Buck White; plus Cooder's son Joachim on drums; and Mark Fain on bass. All you could do was sit back and let the good music play.
The Cooder, White, Skaggs showcase was a study in comfort and joy, focusing on rural, family-harmony-driven, 20th-century classics from the Delmore Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs (with whom Skaggs played as a kid), the Louvin Brothers, Bill Monroe, Merle Travis, Hank Snow, Hank Williams, and other beloveds of country, bluegrass, gospel, and Western swing.
Cooder turned Blind Alfred Reed's "You Must Unload" into a cheerful, holy rant (with jiving, Stones-y guitar riffs). Sharon White sang Kitty Wells' 1955 hit, "Making Believe," with morning cheer as Skaggs sweetly, swiftly, and smilingly played Dobro, guitar, and fiddle. They made it an evening of ecstatic pleasure.
"You picked a good night to come out," Skaggs told the crowd. Then the team kicked into Travis' swinging "Sweet Temptation," with Skaggs' fiddle swirls swarming around Cooder's guitar work like bees around a honeycomb. There was much interaction between Cooder and Skaggs. Cooder sang low-voiced lead on Jimmy Martin's "Hold What You Got" and played bottleneck slide to Skaggs' sonorous plucking. Skaggs took the lead on Flatt & Scruggs' lolling "Go Home," with Cooder's noodling and the gorgeous harmonies of the Whites in on the waltz.
Although Cooder and Skaggs took turns on vocals, White was the warm, penetrating key voice. Her contralto made Hank Williams' "Mansion on the Hill" into a saintly soliloquy, with sister Cheryl luxuriating in the background. In a room full of tender, genius musical practitioners, pianist Buck White was the gig's MVP, as his playful boogie runs and pastoral prancing held each reverie together.