From the opening verses of Mosaic, it's clear that Ricky Skaggs is fine-tuning his music, shifting his sound slightly. Skaggs is singing about his Christian faith in strong yet delicate tones. But the tunes aren't the rigorous bluegrass ones we've come to expect. Instead, he's trying out variations on pop melodies, and he frequently sets his mandolin aside so that his plaintive declarations can be heard with greater starkness. In "My Cup Runneth Over," for example, it's Peter Frampton who provides the guitar hook.
Skaggs has spent most of his career either writing his own material or covering traditional bluegrass, country and gospel music. On Mosaic, however, Skaggs has a new source of material, one that provides a different sensibility for this project: Every song was written or co-written by Gordon Kennedy, who's also written songs for Eric Clapton, Garth Brooks, Bonnie Raitt and many others. Working with Kennedy's material, Skaggs is singing with a new alacrity. The material risks melodrama, but at its best, singer and song achieve the power of forthright modesty.
Something in the chemistry that occurs in mixing Gordon Kennedy's melodies, the Christian imagery of the lyrics and the surging vocals results in music that is both vivid and thoughtful. Skaggs has said in a couple of interviews that he hears Kennedy's songs and their mutual arrangements of them as having "a Beatles feel." That may be an ideal in his own mind, but it suggests what a break with his past he considers this material. To my ears, the songs frequently capture the artistic paradox of good gospel music: expressing humble piety through bold, passionate performances. In "I'm Awake Now," Skaggs is joined by his daughter, Molly Skaggs, for a lovely, irresistible collaboration. You don't have to have a shred of religious belief to be charmed by the combination of Molly's voice and her father's mandolin.
If the Gordon Kennedy songs that fill out Mosaic have given Ricky Skaggs a fresh sound, Kennedy's tunes certainly benefit from being performed by Skaggs. The singing frequently redeems a treacly turn of phrase or a maudlin melody. The pieces don't just fit together on Mosaic — they lock into place with a firmness, an inevitability, that sounds as though chance or faith or fate had nothing to do with it. I prefer another, even simpler term: art.