There was something going on at Massey Hall in Toronto last night – something physical, and something decidedly spiritual. It wasn’t your ordinary concert. Although Massey Hall has hosted more than its share of special shows, there was something different about this one. Everyone knew it. The anticipation ran high. My friends on Facebook were posting last week about how excited they were, how they felt "like 12-year-olds waiting for Christmas." When I sat down in my seat you could hear folks all ‘round talking about how they had been counting down the days. Then, at 8:00 on the dot, as is customary at this hallowed hall, Ricky Skaggs, his wife Sharon White, and Ryland P. Cooder came onto the stage. They were followed by Ry’s son Joachim, Sharon’s sister Cheryl, their dad Buck White and Ricky’s longtime bandmate Mark Fain. It was truly a family affair.
The spiritual started right away with a sparkling rendition of the Louvin Brothers' “The Family Who Prays,” underlining both the family theme and the contact with a higher power. Mandolin, acoustic and electric guitar, standup bass, subtle drumming and a touch of honky-tonk (or was that Southern Baptist) piano. The blend was great, the harmonies true, and the sound was heavenly. Ricky commented on the sound in Massey, and how the building should be treasured. (It does sound fine, but those seats are a challenge!) The heavenly theme continued with Flatt & Scruggs’ “Take Me In Your Lifeboat.” Each of the three highlighted singers took turns taking the lead. And when they needed a quartet, Cheryl stepped up to the microphone. Otherwise she sat next to her 85-year-old father, who was in many ways the star of the night.
If you’ve never seen/heard anyone “tickle the ivories,” look for a video of Buck White: he owned those 88 keys. They did versions of Merle Travis songs, Hank Williams, and Bill Monroe. Ry took up his weird 1960’s Guyatone guitar for Jimmy Martin’s “Hold Whatcha Got.” It was the only tune Cooder played bottleneck on all night, and Ricky said it was his favourite song in the set. It sure got people interested. Ry also played a big old orange Gretsch guitar, a smaller undecipherable electric, and 3 or 4 other stringed instruments, including a banjo he claimed not to have played for 45 years. Don’t believe it!
A slow and sensual “Tennessee Waltz” was introduced as an instrumental back and forth between Ry and Ricky (on mandolin) until the ladies stepped up to the microphones for one final chorus. It was beautiful. Ry sang bass as the quartet did “Where the Soul of Man Never Dies.” The group vocals were stunning. Even Buck took a lead vocal on a Ferlin Husky cover, but it was the harmonies that killed. Close your eyes and be transported.
Sharon strummed a big Martin guitar and sang lead on a few tunes – she has a powerful voice that just cries out country. Cheryl’s tenor joins with the magic sibling blend that caused so many country duets and trios to form. The Louvins, the Stanleys, the Everlys, and the Whites! Ricky Skaggs is an extraordinary mandolin player, but he can also rock the house on a red Tele as he showed a couple times last night. His duet with Sharon on “No Doubt About It” was a highlight. But, truthfully, they were all highlights. Even the between song patter was good. Whether it was teasing Ry about his desire to sing bass in a gospel quartet, or Skaggs remembering his days recording for CBS (“the longer I was with them, the more I could C…BS!").
The show ended after ninety solid minutes and the crowd immediately jumped to its feet. Everybody gets a standing ovation these days – and not everyone deserves it – but this band did. They didn’t keep us waiting either. They came back out and lit into an old Blind Alfred Reed number, “You Must Unload.” At first I thought it might be a Cooder re-write, but when I looked it up this morning, there it was…
You fashion loving Christians, you’ll surely be denied.The same goes for the money-lovers, the power-brokers and the cigarette smokers! Watch out. But if you want to get close to heaven without shuffling off the mortal coil, an evening listening to these good ole gospel songs surely can get you started.
You’re robbing God of treasure, when you feed yourself with pride.
The way is straight and narrow and few are in the road
My brother and my sister there is no other mode
If you want to get to heaven, your future abode
You must, you must unload.
The evening continued downstairs where Ricky, Sharon and Ry signed posters and CDs, and took pictures with everyone, ‘til the last person was satisfied. It’s an old country music tradition, one that might be new to Mr. Cooder. Nonetheless, I shook his hand and went home a happy man.
Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at http://rylander-rylander.blogspot.com. He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas with his wife.