Keith Whitley & Ricky Skaggs

Since its release in 1971, Second Generation Bluegrass by Keith Whitley & Ricky Skaggs has remained a vibrant part of the Rebel Records catalog. It has been an oft-told story how Ralph Stanley discovered the duo when he arrived late for a performance and the two 16-year-olds were on stage entertaining the audience until his arrival. Stanley was so moved that the duo had modeled themselves after the Stanley Brothers—and had done so convincingly—that he invited them to join his group.

The addition of Keith and Ricky to Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys made for some exciting musical combinations within the band. The pair was able to team up with Ralph to recreate some of the haunting trio harmonies that were a hallmark of the Stanley Brothers band in the late 1940s and early ‘50s. A key part of those earlier harmonies was mandolin player Pee Wee Lambert, after whom multi-instrumentalist Ricky Skaggs modeled his own mandolin playing. Skaggs eventually switched instruments to team up with Dr. Stanley’s then-current fiddle player, Curly Ray Cline, to create some lovely twin fiddle harmonies. Whitley played both rhythm and lead guitar, possessed a lovely lead voice that shone brilliantly on songs of the late Carter Stanley, and even dipped down for some effective bass vocals.

When Ralph Stanley signed with Rebel Records in 1971, Keith and Ricky were part of his first album, the highly acclaimed Cry From the Cross. Six months later, Stanley returned to the studio for his second album, Something Old, Something New and time was set aside for Whitley & Skaggs to record their own album, with backing provided by fellow Clinch Mountain Boys. Slightly over half of the songs were ones that were associated with the Stanley Brothers: “Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown,” “Dream of a Miner’s Child,” “Memories of Mother,” “Daybreak in Dixie,” “My Deceitful Heart,” “Wildwood Flower,” and “This Weary Heart You Stole Away.” Other songs were either new or culled from obscure sources, yet all fit the duo’s unique Stanley-style mold.

Despite the duo’s youth, response to the album was immediate and positive. Bluegrass Unlimited reviewer and die hard Stanley fan Walt Saunders gave the album a rating of 4 1/2 out of 5 stars. Of the songs, he noted that “the boys do justice to them all… Particularly noteworthy is their version of ‘Daybreak in Dixie,’ with Skaggs turning in a stellar performance on the mandolin.” Muleskinner News reviewer Bill Vernon was even more effusive with his praise of the recording. “Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs have demonstrated in their relatively short time with Ralph Stanley not only that they are accomplished musicians, but that they have thoroughly absorbed all the stages and facets of the Stanley Brothers’ sound.”

Both men went on to lead distinguished careers in bluegrass and country music, providing stellar examples of what artful music could be created within traditional frameworks. Tragically, Whitley’s career was cut short in 1989 as a result of alcohol poisoning. Ricky Skaggs remains one of the top draws in bluegrass today, but Second Generation Bluegrass remains one of his best bluegrass recordings ever. The promise of their futures was summed up in the conclusion of Bill Vernon’s review: “Rick & Keith are all the old tried-and-true truths of bluegrass reborn. We should have about fifty years of great bluegrass in store.”