Blurred Lines: Life comes full circle for Ricky Skaggs
Are your ears playing tricks on you?
As you turn the radio dial to a country music station these days, all you hear is pop, rock and hip-hop. Surely, this can’t be the result of the sacred musical traditions of Nashville handed down through the generations by the likes of Hank Williams, Kitty Wells, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn and Waylon Jennings?
Sadly, it is. A beloved genre of deep heartache, strong whiskey, cowboy sunsets and crystal clear mountain mornings now traded for bikinis, skinny jeans, white sand beaches and watered down beer. But fear not, “real deal” country music can still found at the starting line of its creation — in bluegrass.
A melting pot of roots, string, gospel and mountain music, bluegrass has remained one of the last vestiges of that “lonesome” sound that still rings true in our country hearts. And nobody blurs the lines between country and bluegrass as well as the one-and-only Ricky Skaggs.
Throughout the 1980s, Skaggs was the toast of country music. Twelve #1 hits, eight CMA and ACM awards, a member of the Grand Ole Opry, and fronting one of the most successful touring acts around, he was a true ambassador of the genre, onstage and in the studio. And yet, as that country sound became more engineered and polished, Skaggs become more enamored with the bluegrass roots of his career, where the legends of Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs and Dr. Ralph Stanley reign supreme.
Hailing from Kentucky, Skaggs has bluegrass in his blood. It is a pure tone and passionate attitude that never left his wandering soul. With that, he’s found a second career of success and accolades in bluegrass over the last two decades. Alongside countless IBMA awards and Grammys for “Best Bluegrass Album,” Skaggs, at the spry age of 60, has become an elder statesman, a torchbearer for the past, present and future of what Monroe kicked off.
Smoky Mountain News: Your career is in its 55th year. What does that number mean to you?
Ricky Skaggs: Well, “55” is double grace. In the scriptures, “5” is the number of grace, and I just feel so full of grace. This year, I started taking my health real serious, getting really intentional and radical. Not due to any specific health issues, but I was overweight, I was out of breath, so sluggish, no energy. So, I shut it down, no sugar and flour, drinking a gallon of water every day. But, I will always eat my barbecue. [Laughs].
SMN: It seems these days that Nashville has lost its identity.
RS: [Laughs] Oh son, don’t get me started on that now. Nashville is one of the hot cities in America. But musically, Nashville has always been a tapestry, all kinds of different genres and styles. Musicians from Chicago, New York and L.A. all move there. All these great musicians in their own right have moved there.
SMN: Do you think if you started out in Nashville today you’d have had a career or be as successful as you have become?
RS: Oh, of course not — neither would Buck Owens, neither would George Jones, neither would Merle Haggard. There’s no room for us at the table anymore. You can either get bitter over it or get better, honing your skills. I’m not going to stay inside the lines anymore.
SMN: What about the notion that a lot of real deal country fans are drifting over to bluegrass these days with its recent rise again in popularity?
RS: Well, every time country music loses its way, loses its step, there seems to be a spike in bluegrass, and that’s what we’re seeing today. Bluegrass has that country music feel in its honest sound and earthy tone. The foundations of bluegrass are more folk, more mountainous and old-time, with sounds and characteristics that immediately take you back to the mountains.
SMN: Was there a specific moment went it all clicked for you and you knew you wanted to spend the rest of your life playing music?
RS: There was, when I was 6 years old. My parents brought me to see Bill Monroe play. I’d only been playing mandolin for about a year, but folks in the crowd kept yelling up to the stage, “Let Ricky Skaggs play.” They kept doing it, and finally Bill Monroe had enough of it, and called for me to come up. He didn’t know who Ricky Skaggs was. I go down and Bill pulled me up onstage like a sack of potatoes. He sat me down and asked me what I played. I told him mandolin and he took off his F5 (mandolin) and placed it around me. It was so prophetic to me what that meant. It was like he was passing the baton, even at 6 years old, to a young kid that would grow up some day and play his music and tell people about him. I didn’t think any of that back then, I had no idea what my future held, but I became aware of who he was in that moment. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was his way of passing the music on to the next generation.
SMN: Do you remember what song you played?
RS: It was “Ruby, Are You Mad” by The Osbourne Brothers. I kind of only knew two songs at that time, “Ruby” and this other song about a pinball machine. And my mom told me before I got onstage, “Don’t you sing that pinball song.” Luckily, the band knew how to play “Ruby,” and it became a defining moment for me.
SMN: Is there any advice you have for younger, aspiring players?
RS: Well, with what I’ve tried to do with my life and music, it’s about being true to who you are. There was only one Bill Monroe and I wasn’t him, there is only one Ralph Stanley and I wasn’t him, one Earl Scruggs and I wasn’t him either. But there’s only one Ricky Skaggs, and what God gave to me was totally unique to me. Learn from every source you can learn from, play the instrument, turn off the video games, get on YouTube and look at old players and live shows, get around people that play good music. Aggravate someone to death to try to learn from them, say, “Hey, I want to learn this and show it to me.” Don’t be an island unto yourself. Don’t let these old cats get away before you’ve had a chance to go in and look at everything on their shelves, open every jar that’s there and dig down and get some good stuff because these old ones will be gone soon. And as an older player, we need to be sharing this with the young kids, because who will? They won’t learn it on CMT and MTV — you’ve got to really search for it just like gold.
SMN: Are you having full circle moments as you’ve gotten older?
RS: Early in my career, and I don’t think it was that I resented people, but there was a time when I was touring so much, 240 days a year back in the 1980s and early 1990s, that the last thing I wanted to do after a show was sign autographs out front. I’m not that Ricky Skaggs anymore. Now, I go out there. I love people. I love talking to these little kids after the show that are just starting to play instruments. I’m feeling that Bill Monroe thing, that Ralph Stanley thing, those people who influenced me, I’m really enjoying this part of my life, where I’m the one of the elders in the room and not Mr. Monroe because he’s gone. At 60 years old, I’ve got a lot of good years left, and I feel great.
Want to go?
Bluegrass/country legend Ricky Skaggs will perform at 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 3, at the Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts in Franklin. A 14-time Grammy winner, Skaggs has numerous #1 hits on the country and bluegrass charts throughout his career. Tickets start at $25. 866.273.4615 or www.greatmountainmusic.com.