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By CRYSTAL CAVINESS, United Press International  |  Feb. 21, 2002 at 4:54 PM
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NASHVILLE, Feb. 21 (UPI) -- "There was a magic of the music that night."

Ricky Skaggs obviously is awestruck when discussing the television special he hosted at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville in mid-January. The one-hour show, "All Star Bluegrass Celebration," will air beginning Sunday on PBS stations throughout the United States.

A corresponding CD, "Ricky Skaggs & Friends Sing the Songs of Bill Monroe," which features several of the artists who performed on the television special, will hit the stores early next week.

In a preview airing of the show, Nashville's public television station broadcast the show during a fund-raising drive. Music specials, such as "All Star Bluegrass Celebration," typically bring in $10,000 to $15,000 in pledges during its one-hour airing, according to a spokeswoman for the show. The Feb. 10 show earned the station $35,000 in pledges, she said.

The amount of pledges that the show drew is one more indication of the popularity of bluegrass, typically an overlooked musical genre.

During the past year, bluegrass has found its way to a mainstream audience. Festivals are burgeoning, albums are selling and Hollywood is taking note. The bluegrass soundtrack from the popular George Clooney film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" has been certified multiplatinum and won a number of major industry awards.

Skaggs could not be happier.

"When I came to Nashville in 1981, my heart was to fuse country and bluegrass together," he said recently from his Music City home.

After a string of country hits, including winning the 1985 entertainer of the year award from the Country Music Association, Skaggs changed gears six years ago to focus primarily on making bluegrass records.

His first effort on his own label "Bluegrass Rules!" sold more than 200,000 copies and won a Grammy, a tremendous effort for a bluegrass project. He has repeated that process several times in the past six years with records, but he always wanted to take bluegrass to television in a major way.

"For years I had watched so many great television specials for so many different types of music," Skaggs said. "And ... in my heart of hearts, I was always jealous for a great television special for bluegrass."

Skaggs got his heart's desire with "All Star Bluegrass Celebration."

Terry Lickona, veteran producer of the popular "Austin City Limits," came to Nashville to produce the show. Skaggs and Lickona assembled the best in the business for audio, lighting and all production areas.

The onstage cast that was assembled also included the best. Vince Gill, Patty Loveless, Ralph Stanley, Earl Scruggs, Alison Krauss, Nickel Creek, Travis Tritt, Bruce Hornsby and the Del McCoury Band rounded out the bill.

"The musicianship has risen to a high level right now," Skaggs said. "The music is very complex, it's not easy to play. It takes years of not just mastering an instrument ... you need to learn the heart and spirit of the music. "

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