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TERRY GROSS, host:

Ricky Skaggs has been playing the mandolin professionally since the age of six, when he performed on stage with Bill Monroe. He became a mainstream country music star in the 1980's. In recent years, Skaggs has been performing in a more traditional bluegrass style, sometimes with a gospel influence. The latest result of this is "Mosaic," a pop, gospel, bluegrass collection.

Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.

(Soundbite of song, "Mosaic")

Mr. RICKY SKAGGS (Musician): (Singing) Carve my name upon a tree. And I've been to the bar trying to make a mark so they'd remember me. Wanting to matter to someone, maybe be a reason why, be the apple of an eye before my life is done.

And all I'm saying, I'm in a place where, all I'm praying, I see my face in one mosaic. And I am a piece in the deal, and it is real.

KEN TUCKER: 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. On "My Cup Runneth Over," it's Peter Frampton who provides the guitar hook.

(Soundbite of song, "My Cup Runneth Over")

Mr. SKAGGS: (Singing) You ask is it half empty? You ask is it half full? You've seen that on a T-shirt and you heard that line in stores. Well, it's really very clever. Let's don't play by no rules. If I give a different answer would you think of me a fool?

None of the above...

TUCKER: 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.

(Soundbite of song, "Instead")

Mr. SKAGGS: (Singing) When I was brought to judgment twas nothing I could say. And guilty was the verdict, still I am walking free today. And I am the keeper's sinner. Should have been left for dead. My penalty, death on a tree, Jesus paid instead.

TUCKER: 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. On this song, "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.

(Soundbite of song, "I'm Awake Now")

Ms. MOLLY SKAGGS (Singer): (Singing) I'm awake now, no mistake now. I'm awake. It's okay, now. I'm safe now. I'm awake, I'm awake. I'm awake now.

For those of you who think I'm sleeping as you stand beside the bed. For those of you, who may be weeping, don't look for me among the dead.

I'm awake now, no mistake now....

TUCKER: If the Gordon Kennedy songs that fill out "Mosaic" have given Ricky Skaggs a fresh sound, Gordon 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 have little to do with it. I prefer another, even simpler term: art.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Ricky Skaggs' new album, "Mosaic." You can hear three tracks on our website, freshair.npr.org.

Coming up, John Powers reviews the new documentary about some of the consequences of modernization in China on family life. This is FRESH AIR.

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