("Exploring the Classics" (ETC) is an ongoing series in which I highlight and discuss an album from country music's past that is of particular noteworthiness due to general acclaim, influence, historical import, commercial success, or some combination thereof. While in many instances I'll be revisiting albums with which I've long been familiar, in others I'll be experiencing these works for the first time. What albums count as "noteworthy" is obviously highly subjective and determined at my discretion, but I'm not too strict about it. I do, however, feel that these are the works that tell the story of country music and all of its many roots and branches.)
Collaborative and duet albums have a long and storied history in country music, but in truth they rarely live up to their billing. There have been many good ones, but few I would classify as genuinely great. I don't know if the problem is the difficulty of two artists working together on a unified vision ("too many chefs spoil the soup") or what, but such albums are seldom as interesting as the individual artists' best solo material. However, this general observation in no way applies to Ricky Skaggs and Tony Rice's self-titled album from 1980, which is a thoroughly excellent bluegrass album from start to finish.
By the time this album came out, Tony Rice was already a big name in bluegrass with a handful of acclaimed albums to his name and a reputation as a virtuoso of the acoustic guitar. Ricky Skaggs was only in his mid-twenties and had just released his first solo album, but already had a considerable amount of musical experience under his belt as a member of various bluegrass bands since the time he was a teenager. The two men knew each other from their time in J.D. Crowe's The New South and set out to create an album together that paid tribute to the music they loved and grew up on.
Fans have been debating what country music is and what it should sound like probably for as long as the concept of "country music" has existed. Between the Nashville Sound and Chet Atkins, the outlaw backlash, the Urban Cowboy fad, the neotraditional movement, the Garth/Shania boom years, "Murder on Music Row", the rise of alt-country and Americana, Taylor Swift winning Entertainer of the Year, "old farts and jackasses", the emergence of bro-country, the out-of-nowhere success of Chris Stapleton and all the other notable events and eras, I'm sure you've heard all the arguments and back-and-forths by now. At this point, rehashing this whole debate is not beating a dead horse, it's exhuming the body and lighting it on fire. But if you'll indulge me, I'd like to give my thoughts on this subject.
I guess the question we have to ask ourselves is, "What exactly is country music?" The biggest issue surrounding this whole debate is that there's no official, objective criteria that determines what is or isn't country. It's not like a deity has descended from the heavens to inscribe the one true definition of country music onto a stone tablet, nor have scientists discovered a new theorem that can be used to irrefutably prove whether a piece of music is or isn't country. Webster and Wikipedia are vague, and talk more about country music's influences and places of origin than what it actually sounds like. Ultimately, it seems people's conceptions of country music vary depending on when they were born, what music they've been exposed to, and what they like.