"Let little Ricky sing one!"
Inside the high school gym in tiny Martha, Kentucky, a cry came from the audience. It was a late summer’s evening in 1960, and Bill Monroe was onstage with his Bluegrass Boys. As more and more people called out for “little Ricky,” Monroe finally acquiesced and invited 6-year-old Ricky Skaggs to join them on the bandstand.
With the master’s enormous F-5 Lear Gibson mandolin strapped on, the pint-sized picker called for “Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man,” and the Bluegrass Boys kicked it off. Monroe stood off to the side, amused, as the kid who would be his eventual heir apparent nervously tore through a solo.
And that’s how the Ricky Skaggs story began.
Raised in a hardworking Christian household in Cordell, just down the road from Martha, in mountainous Eastern Kentucky, Skaggs was bewitched by bluegrass from his earliest days. At 7, he guested on a local TV show with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.
At 15, he and best buddy Keith Whitley (himself a future country music star) joined Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys. Skaggs’ high tenor, and prowess on the mandolin (and fiddle, and guitar) integrated effortlessly with the mountain music’s other crucial elements.
He went on to break musical ground as part of J.D. Crowe & the New South and Boone Creek, before joining Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band (replacing Rodney Crowell, and injecting a most-welcome shot of acoustic traditionalism into Emmy’s sound).
Skaggs’ subsequent career as a country music hitmaker included 12 Number One hits, all in some way neo-traditionalist throwbacks to the bluegrass and old-time country he so loved.
Along the way, he collaborated with scores of other brilliant musicians, over a wide swath of genres. Most important, to him, cultivated a close friendship with Monroe himself, and considered him a mentor.
By the mid 1990s, in the wake of the Garth Brooks tsunami, Skaggs’ mainstream country career was running on empty. When Monroe died in 1996, at age 84, Skaggs officially re-dedicated himself to full-time bluegrass pickin.’
Calling his band Kentucky Thunder, Skaggs embarked on another phase of his remarkable career. All 12 of the band’s albums have been Grammy-nominated (eight of them won), and he occasionally spins off for outside projects with artists like Bruce Hornsby (their second album as a duo, Cluck Ol’ Hen, was released in 2013).
The 14-time Grammy winner is, without question, the keeper of the flame for bluegrass and traditional Appalachian sounds.
The late Chet Atkins praised Skaggs for “single-handedly” saving country music.
CS: You don't have to work as much as you do now. Why do you do it?
Ricky Skaggs: I got an office, I got a business. I've got employees, people that are depending on me ... I mean, I'm a small business owner. I've got to work. I couldn't keep this big ol' house I got here on top of the hill, where I can see Nashville from 15 miles away. I love our house here in Hendersonville. But I have to work in order to keep it. I've got my record label, Skaggs Family, and my studio and everything.
And I’m glad I have to work. I really am glad. I was raised to work, my mom and dad instilled that in me, the Bible speaks it, teaches it. If you don’t work, you don’t eat. I can’t believe that people can’t find something to work at. There is honor in flipping hamburgers, buddy, let me tell you. There is honor in sweeping, there’s honor in cleaning something, there’s honor in working by the sweat of your brow. Our world is turned so upside down.
If there was a health issue and I couldn’t do it, then that’s different. But as long as I am healthy and can keep going ... I’ll be 60 in July, and I’ve got a lot of good years ahead of me. I’ve got a lot of singing to do, a lot of picking, a lot of teaching young kids. I’m all about that.
CS: Do you have a sense of yourself in your 80s, as the Grand Old Man of bluegrass, teaching the young people?
RS: See, here's what my heart wants to do. I want to pour into them when I can see fruit come from it. I know Ralph (Stanley) can look at me and say "Hey, that's my fruit right there. I gave him his first job when he was 15." Someone sent me a DVD of an old film. Ralph did a K-Mart opening in Clintwood, Virginia in '71 or '72. And there's me and Keith, long, lanky kids, and we're up on this flatbed truck. I think we had one mic, and it sounded great. And here we have 12 mics onstage now, and sometimes can't get a good sound! So what's wrong with this picture? [laughs]
I don’t want to wait till I’m 80 years old to try to pour into people. I think Mon missed a great opportunity—I think we all kind of learned from him, so he was teaching whether he knew it or not. He was teaching by example. He was teaching by his continuing playing and stuff like that, but I want to be involved in their lives now. I want to have an interchange with them. Because when you exchange with young kids, you get something back from them, too. You get honor, you get respect, you get love, you get all the things that we all want in our lives. But yet they’re getting knowledge and wisdom, and technique. How to set up a mandolin. What kind of strings do you use? This is a good pick, why don’t you think about going up a little thicker on this pick, it’ll give you a little deeper tones with your mandolin ... practical things that can really help ‘em in life, you know?
I’m hoping I’m around in my 80s, still playing, but I really want to have that relationship with these young kids now.
CS: In your autobiography, you call the music "pure, uncorrupted and timeless." I loved that phrase. Do you still feel that thrill every time you play?
RS: There's a joy that I feel when I'm playing. A big part of it is just because we're musicians and we love playing. But there's a joy knowing that I was given a gift, and it's a humbling thing that the Lord has been so good to me, so kind to me to allow me to have what I have. Yes, I've worked, but believe me I know where the blessings come from. It's not because I am so good. It's because He is so good.
When I’m onstage, it don’t matter if my back’s been hurtin’ or if I have a headache, or if I’m not quite up to par to sing like I was last week or something like that, I’m just gonna enjoy it. I’m just gonna have fun. That’s the best part of the day for me, having that 90 minutes up there with my band. And having them up there just playin’ like gunslingers. I mean, they’re out there just wearin’ it out. And it makes me just come alongside and go “Man, these guys are blowin’ and goin,’ I better get on with it with this next solo.” I don’t want to drop one note in this thing, ‘cause I don’t want them eyes cockin’ at me like “Well ... you can get it tomorrow night.” These guys are well-oiled; they’re a machine. So I love every night that I get to play. It’s just a gift to get to do this every night.
CS: Any regrets, ever, about leaving the quote-unquote country music career?
RS: No regrets. I miss the music; I miss playing with the full band sometimes, the drums and piano, and playing my electric Tele. But you know, we can do that, we still go out and do some dates where the bluegrass band will come out, and we'll play 45 minutes, take an intermission, and re-set the stage. We'll have the drum set, a steel guitar player comes with us, a piano player comes with us, and my acoustic bass player straps on his big Fender bass and gets his pick out. And we go at it. We'll do "Heartbroke" and "Honey Open That Door" and "Cajun Moon" and "Highway 40 Blues," a bunch of country hits that we had. And the audience loves it. We do the Opry that-a-way sometimes. It's just so much fun to do.
It lets me go back and be grateful for that history that I had in country music, and things that I was able to do there. To bring traditional sounds to country music that weren’t there in the early ‘80s, when the revolution was going on with that real pop country sound. The Urban Cowboy thing.