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Ricky Skaggs, Over the Rhine on Saturday bill at Four Corners Folk Festival

 When you’re planning your 15th annual music festival, you need to think of something big that will really wow your audience. Something that’s big enough to bring your audience back again to help you celebrate the milestone. Something that will make a lasting impression. For the 2010 Four Corners Folk Festival, that something is the appearance of Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder on Reservoir Hill on Saturday, Sept. 4 at 7 p.m.

 Believe it or not, this year’s festival is just a few weeks away, taking place Sept. 3-5 right here in Pagosa Springs. Tickets have been selling like crazy online and by phone (we’ve gone to a ticketless system this year) since December, but it’s definitely not too late to pick up some tickets by visiting the web site, www.folkwest.com, or calling (877) 472-4672.

 The entire festival lineup is truly outstanding, with a very wide range of musical styles represented in the mix — from traditional bluegrass a la Ricky Skaggs — to newgrass, folk, Celtic, gypsy swing and folk rock a la this week’s other featured festival band, Over The Rhine. All told there are 15 ensembles who will play on the hill including Sam Bush, The Infamous Stringdusters, Solas, Crooked Still, John Jorgenson Quintet, Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, Sarah Jarosz, Anne and Pete Sibley, Caravan of Thieves, MilkDrive, Sarah Siskind, The Black Lillies and Sweet Sunny South.

 But let’s get back to bluegrass music’s official ambassador, Ricky Skaggs. 2010 marks Ricky’s 39th year as a professional musician, and this 14-time Grammy Award winner continues to do his part to lead the recent roots revival in music. Ricky has brought the genre to greater levels of popularity in the past few years than the father of bluegrass music, the legendary Bill Monroe, could ever have imagined. 

 Ricky was born on July 18, 1954 in Cordell, Ky., and was already an accomplished singer and mandolin player by the time he reached his teens. In 1971, he entered the world of professional music with his friend, the late country singer, Keith Whitley, when the two young musicians were invited to join the band of bluegrass patriarch Ralph Stanley. Ricky soon began to build a reputation for creativity and excitement through live appearances and recordings with acts such as J.D. Crowe and the New South. He performed on the band’s 1975 debut album for Rounder Records, which is widely regarded as one of the most influential bluegrass albums ever made.  A stint as a bandleader with Boone Creek followed, bringing the challenges of leadership while giving him further recording and performing experience.

 Beginning in the late 1970s, Ricky turned his attention to country music. Though still in his 20s, the wealth of experience and talent he possessed served him well, first as a member of Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band and later as an individual recording artist on his own. With the release of “Waitin’ for the Sun to Shine” in 1981, Skaggs reached the top of the country charts and remained there throughout most of the 1980s. As his popularity soared, he garnered eight awards from the Country Music Association (CMA), including Entertainer of the Year in 1985, four Grammy Awards, and dozens of other honors. These achievements also placed him front and center in the neo-traditionalist movement, bringing renewed vitality and prominence to a sound that had been somewhat subdued by the commercialization of the ‘Urban Cowboy’ fad.  Renowned guitarist and producer, Chet Atkins, credited Skaggs with “single-handedly” saving country music.

 In 1997, after Ricky’s then-current recording contract was coming to an end, he decided to establish his own record label — Skaggs Family Records. Since then, Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder have released an amazing eight consecutive Grammy-nominated classics, (six of which went on to earn the revered award) while also opening the label to a variety of other musical artists, all the time keeping emphasis on bluegrass an other forms of roots music. Since then, Ricky and Skaggs Family Records have had the privilege of working with many musical talents including, The Del McCoury Band, Blue Highway, The Whites, Mountain Heart, Melonie Cannon, Ryan Holladay, Keith Sewell, Cherryholmes, and Cadillac Sky.

 Beyond his award-winning recordings, Ricky continues to lead the charge in bringing renewed vitality to country music’s most down-to-earth art form. From a string of high-profile tour dates with the Dixie Chicks in 2000, to his position as host of the unprecedented “All*Star Bluegrass Celebration” which aired nationwide on PBS in 2002, to his participation in the wildly successful 41-city Down from the Mountain tour — Ricky has become one of bluegrass’ most talented and dynamic performers.

 Ricky Skaggs has often said that he is just trying to make a living playing the music he loves.  But it’s clear that his passion for bluegrass puts him in the position to bring this lively, distinctively American form of music out of isolation and into the ears and hearts of audiences across the country and around the world.  Blessed with a close-knit family, and abundance of talent, a lifetime of musical experience and a crack band behind him, Ricky Skaggs is well on the way to showing the world that “country rocks, but bluegrass rules!” Skaggs’ killer bluegrass set will close the day’s show on Saturday, Sept. 4.

Perhaps the band that is most elementally different from Ricky Skaggs on the bill this year is Over The Rhine. After more than 16 years making music, it’s obvious the Ohio band Over The Rhine is in it for the long haul, and for keeps. Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist, the married couple at the heart of Over The Rhine, admit the band may not be a household name, but to call the act’s followers “fanatical” would understate the point, and they’re not shy about converting the curious. Why? For starters, there’s Bergquist’s torchy, devil-may-care voice, brimming with Midwestern soul, unafraid to lay bare every emotional resonance. And then there’s the life-and-death commitment dripping from her every word. “I’m either into it or I’m not, because there’s no faking it with me,” Bergquist notes. “Life’s way too short for that.”

Over The Rhine began in 1990 as a more conventional four-piece rock band, albeit one far more in tune with the nuances of songcraft than its three-chord, grunge-era contemporaries. “I was continuing my education, considering my masters degree, when this tall, lanky fella approached me about singing lead for some rock band in Cincinnati,” recalls the classically trained Bergquist. “I didn’t just jump at the chance. I lunged.”

Adopting the name of the gritty neighborhood Over-The-Rhine, where the foursome found fertile soil, the group quickly became a local sensation and graduated from sold-out weekend club dates to opening tours for Adrian Belew and Bob Dylan. Two lavishly packaged independent records later, the young group signed to IRS, which re-released second record “Patience” with its original artwork, a first for the label (and a tribute to the vision and attention to detail which has always marked the band).

Seeking artistic autonomy, the band returned to independence for “Good Dog Bad Dog,” a collection of glorified demos and home recordings that nonetheless eventually outsold the band’s three previous IRS releases combined and knit the band tightly to its fanbase, which, by then, had come to hang on the group’s every move.

The next few years found the band pared to its core duo of Detweiler and Bergquist, as the two locked arms with likeminded fellow travelers Cowboy Junkies, touring as “honorary members” of the group, and released their Virgin/Backporch debut, “Films For Radio.” Next came Over The Rhine’s magnum opus, the double album “Ohio” — “a deeply moving, maddening, and redemptive work of art, and necessary, ambitious pop,” as All Music Guide’s Thom Jurek put it in a 4.5-star review. The intimate, living-room record “Drunkard’s Prayer” followed — recorded, literally, in the duo’s Cincinnati living room — as the sound continued to expand beyond rock to encompass elements of country and jazz, punctuated by Drunkard’s Prayer’s final track, a moody, late-night reading of “My Funny Valentine.”

Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist are the songwriting team that perpetuates Over the Rhine. Linford has always viewed his job description as “creating spaces where good things can happen.” He elaborates, “Karin and I write songs that allow her voice to bloom, and we find musicians who know how to take what we do and make it spark and breathe, twitch and moan. We try to work with musicians who inspire us, people whose company we enjoy. And we try to write music that in little ways helps to heal the wounds that life has dealt us or the wounds we’ve dealt ourselves. We try to write songs that can hum joyfully at the stars when something good goes down. We try to write tunes capable of whispering to a sleeping child that in spite of everything, somehow, all is well. We try to write words that help us learn to tell the truth to ourselves and others. That’s a big part of all this. Music is a wonderful platform for discovering what we believe is true. But Over the Rhine is ultimately the music that Karin and I find within and without for her to sing.”

Linford and Karin will continue the conversation, writing music, telling secrets to whoever feels like listening, gathering musicians together that move them, traveling from town square to town square, trying to make sense of this gift of too-large life — they will continue as long as that still small voice compels them from time to time to carry on. Over The Rhine appears Saturday, Sept. 4 at 3 p.m.

The Four Corners Folk Festival is supported by a grant from Colorado Creative Industries, a state agency, and the National Endowment for the Arts, a national agency. Additional information is available online at www.folkwest.com.