Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder bring bluegrass hits, history to Birchmere

The icon of mountain music delivered the first of two shows near DC

Bluegrass and country music legend Ricky Skaggs brought his band Kentucky Thunder with him for the first of two intimate shows at Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia on Friday night (Jan 5th).

Skaggs is one of the most honored icons in all of country music. He’s a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and received the Presidential Medal of Arts a few years ago. He’s won over a dozen Grammy Awards, along with multiple CMA and ACM Awards.

It’s easy to see why. Running through a bevy of bluegrass hits both vocal and instrumental, Skaggs and his backing six-piece never missed a note as they strummed and plucked with fervor. Skaggs & Co. also offered a slew of Stanley Brothers classics. Skaggs got his start in the storied bluegrass group at 15 along with another future Country Music Hall of Famer — Keith Whitley.

Skaggs has the quintessential bluegrass voice. Nasal, on-key, and endlessly contemplative of life in a way it seems that only Appalachian men can be. Those qualities shined through on songs including “The Darkest Hour Just Before Dawn,” and “Blue Ridge Mountain Home.” The latter is a Flatt and Scruggs tune from decades ago. Skaggs decided to perform it on the eve of Earl Scruggs’ 100th birthday.

Demonstrating that his voice is more supple than just a lonesome wail, “Uncle Pen” was a mid-set upbeat hit that had the crowd stomping and singing along to the twangy earworm. “Highway 40 Blues” followed, with Skaggs demonstrating an almost supernatural ability on the mandolin.

A generous lead, Skaggs let each of his Kentucky Thunder members feature throughout the night while he heaped praise upon them. Russell Carson kicked off a rowdy instrumental with his fiery banjo work. And Billy Contreras transplanted the steel guitar-forward Bud Isaacs tune “Bud’s Bounce” to the fiddle. It had the crowd bouncing along as Contreras and other band members featured. And guitarist Jake Workman tore up the mile-a-minute “Down in the Dirt.”

Skaggs also showed off the gospel side of bluegrass, offering the pensive “One or the Other.” Off of the record Mosiac, Skaggs also shared “Shepherd’s Voice.” It, along with other Mosiac songs, was co-written by Grammy-winning songwriter and guitarist for Garth Brooks, Gordon Kennedy.

Beforehand, he got candid about his faith, and belief that God has had a hand in his success. Also taking the Birchmere to church, guitarist Dennis Parker spoke openly about his upcoming celebration of nine years sober and his time in and out of jail as an alcoholic. Parker honored his late father with John Prine’s “Paradise.”

A Ricky Skaggs concert is an education. One of the most vocal supporters of the Country Music Hall of Fame, Skaggs is a steward of country music history. Stories about the Stanley Brothers, the Opry, Bill Monroe, and more peppered the set. And this living musical encyclopedia had the crowd as rapt when he spoke as when he played.

It’s a cliche phrase, but it may truly be that Ricky Skaggs has forgotten more about country music than most will ever know. And country music and bluegrass are all the better for it.

Matt Bailey
Matt Bailey

Matt Bailey is a media producer currently located in Washington, DC. He has worked as a writer, producer, and host in a variety of mediums including television news, podcasting, daytime television, and live entertainment. He joined The Music Universe in 2016. Since then, Bailey has traveled across the country to review hundreds of concerts and interview some of music's biggest hitmakers. Bailey truly believes in the unifying power of experiencing live music. To reach him, please email matt@themusicuniverse.com.