SANTA ANA — Imagine a comfy chair, with big wooden armrests, upholstered in green flannel with hunting scenes. Imagine a dusty black '56 Chevy with four bald tires lumbering down a country road. Imagine a favorite old shirt, preferably one with a torn pocket.
That's the sort of feel a Ricky Skaggs show has these days: comfortable, familiar and dependable. Even when he was the blazing star of the country charts--with 20 Top 10 hits (most of them hitting No. 1) between 1981 and 1989--Skaggs wasn't exactly Billy Ray Cyrus when it came to showmanship and oomph factor , and thank heaven for that.
What the singer and multi-instrumentalist offered in place of that was reassuringly rock-solid country music, fusing his bluegrass tradition with just enough pop to make it palatable to modern listeners.
That combination made him the guiding light of new traditionalism, leading country out of its 1970s synthesizer quagmire. But as most other artists over 35, the 40-year-old Skaggs has been ignored in recent years by country radio, and he hasn't even had an album out since 1991's "My Father's Son." (He said he hopes to release a new one next summer.)
That didn't keep his loyal fans from filling the Crazy Horse Steak House for Skaggs' early show Monday; nor did it keep him from delivering a cozily enlivened set of his music.
When other artists hit on thinner times, the ranks of their bands often also grow thinner. But Skaggs is still carrying a seven-piece band with him, which shows quite a commitment to the music and his players considering he's practically a band in and of himself.
He didn't get around to playing any banjo Monday, but he did some splendid turns on fiddle, mandolin and acoustic and electric guitars. On the latter two, he remains one of the most assured and inventive flat-pickers in the business.
Though his talents were amply displayed over the 18-song set, Skaggs didn't hog the spotlight, instead giving numerous solo outings to his band mates. Pedal steel guitarist Dean Holman in particular lent a rich atmospheric setting to many songs, and his solos hit a fine balance between mood and melody. Nearly as impressive were second guitarist Keith Sewell's demon-paced electric excursions.
With sidemen like that, Skaggs had to be good, and he was. Often--and particularly on an instrumental dedicated to O.C. guitar trader Randy Snoddy--Skaggs moved around the neck of his acoustic Martin with the facility and definition one usually only achieves on an electric.
And when he did strap on a Telecaster it got downright scary, the way he built up chorus after chorus of wild, spluttery notes on "Lovin' Only Me."
His keening, bluegrass-derived vocals were also in fine form throughout the show, which included his first hit "Don't Get Above Your Raising," "Hummingbird," "Cajun Moon," Jimmy Bryant's "Only Daddy That'll Walk the Line," "Father Knows Best" and "Life's Too Long (to Live Like This)."
He lifted Guy Clark's "Heartbroke" with a pure pop buoyancy that showed an early love for the Beatles. His finest effort of the evening was reserved for the gospel number "Higher Than I," where his unaccompanied impassioned vocal just soared.
Skaggs didn't ignore his other great love, bluegrass music, either. It inflected all of the songs, and the center portion of the show was devoted to it. Skaggs said he's hoping to tour an entirely acoustic show next spring, which he threatened to title "The Ricky Skaggs pick till you puke show."