From bluegrass to country – and back again
July 8, 2006
When Ricky Skaggs was 3, he could achieve perfect harmony with his parents when they sang in church. Now, with a few Grammys under his belt, it’s clear he was on the right track early.”My dad bought me a mandolin when I was 5,” Skaggs said. “He taught me the basic chords and just kind of left me to it. Since I was 5 years old I’ve been doing it full time. I play to live, but I live to play. I love playing because that’s life to me.”Skaggs and his band, Kentucky Thunder, are scheduled to play the Belly Up tonight, showcasing some of the fastest and hottest picking that will grace the stage this summer. Skaggs said that to play at those speeds takes serious conditioning, where even a week off can make a difference.”Andy Leftwich, my fiddle player, he married my niece,” Skaggs said. “Being off 10 days, when we came back and started doing dates it was dragging trying to get up to speed.”The band had a week off before playing at the recent Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee. “It was like, ‘Man, I’ve got a brick on my hand,'” Skaggs said. “That’s how we were all feeling.” The band’s speed and tightness have borne fruit in the form of Grammys for Bluegrass Album of the Year, including one for his latest, “Brand New Strings.”The early start might have helped, too. “[Bill Monroe] invited me on stage when I was 6,” Skaggs said. “It was my first real stage appearance in front of an audience.”
Monroe was playing at a high school in eastern Kentucky, where Skaggs grew up. About 30 minutes into the show, neighbors started requesting that Monroe invite little Skaggs onto the stage. “After a while he tired of all the requests,” Skaggs said. “I don’t think he realized how little I really was.”While up there, Skaggs sang, “Ruby, Are You Mad At Your Man?” an Osborne Brothers hit. By the time he was 10, Skaggs had performed with Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, and the Stanley Brothers. He was 15 when he met Keith Whitley. “Everything he liked, I liked,” Skaggs said. “Most guys my age were into rock ‘n’ roll.We started playing and singing. I invited him over to my house. Next thing you know, we’re doing some shows together. We’re just having fun, we’re still kids, just 15.”So they’d been playing around and had an opportunity to go see Ralph Stanley perform at a little beer joint, where they couldn’t even have gotten without Ricky’s father as a chaperon. “Ralph’s bus broke down about 30 miles outside of town,” said Skaggs, who added that they brought their instruments with them and kept them in the car, just in case.”The owner came up and said, ‘Y’all bring your music with you?'” Skaggs said. “Here we are 30 minutes into our show, and Ralph Stanley walks in. We’re playing on his stage. He doesn’t go to the dressing room. He hears us singing, goes to the barstool and listens. Man, talk about Albert Einstein looking over your shoulder to see if you get an equation right.”
Skaggs and Whitley could hardly stand the embarrassment. “I couldn’t tell if he was diggin’ it or hating it or what,” Skaggs said. “We go back to the dressing room. We have to face him and he said, ‘Hey, you boys did great.’ The rest of the band said ‘Yeah!'”So Ralph went up to play, and after the third song invited Skaggs and Whitley back onstage for another 30 minutes. They received an invitation to play at a festival in Camp Springs, N.C., later that summer.”Here we were, 15 years old, hopped on a bus, there were no bunks for us. We pulled in about 6 or 7 in the morning,” Skaggs said. “Ralph wanted to show us off. We worked up those high trio things they would do back in the ’40s. That was the turning point that changed from kids playing music to young adult men that wanted to do this as a living.”It was 1970. The next summer, Ricky Skaggs traveled with Ralph Stanley and played festivals for $25 a day. “I’ve tried to learn from him so much,” Skaggs said. “He doesn’t try to do new music. The older he gets, the more ancient he becomes. You would almost think older musicians want to try and find new songs but he just continues to go back ad go back farther, to that mountain thing he so loves doing. I love him. I’m so blessed to be able to have known him.”But the Skaggs story isn’t about just bluegrass. Though he started off there and is back to bluegrass now, Skaggs was also a country musician. He played with Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band and later solo. It wasn’t until 1997 that he started his own label – Skaggs Family Records – and began recording what has now been seven consecutive Grammy-nominated albums (including five that won), mostly emphasizing old-time roots music and bluegrass. Sometimes that music crossed over into gospel. “I’m an artist. I’m not a Christian artist, I’m an artist who is a Christian,” Skaggs said. “It’s the relationship that I’m talking about. It’s the relationship with God that helps me to play.”For Skaggs, God is central to the music he is creating.
“I know that God has given me a gift to make music and a gift to be a communicator,” he said. “God is love. Being able to transfer love and joy, happiness, peace, hope, all those things, those wonderful gifts, being able to translate those things to people, and through something as simple as bluegrass.”He sees his connection to God in much the same way as he sees his connection to the past. He seeks to honor past musicians with humility and respect. “A lot of the new bluegrass guys kind of view me as an elder statesman of bluegrass,” he said. “I’m not that old. But I always feel I have one foot in 1946 but my other foot is in the future of bluegrass. I’m stretching my right foot into the future with people like Nickel Creek and Alison Krauss.”Bluegrass relies a great deal on tradition. And for Skaggs, that tradition is a lifeline to his childhood and to the music he loves.”Never forget where we came from,” he said. “I like bringing that past forward. We should honor those people. It’s relevant for today. A lot of what I’ll do Monday night is, I will tell a lot about the history of the music.”And few people know it as well as Skaggs. “We’ll be ready for Aspen, unless the altitude gets us,” he said on the phone from Denver. “We get up to Aspen, it’ll be a little higher. I sometimes have trouble catching my breath. You have to take a deep breath, hit 10 words. Take another deep breath and hit 10 more words.”He’ll probably do just fine. Tickets to tonight’s show are $40. Doors open at 8 p.m. and showtime is 9 p.m. The Belly Up is at 450 S. Galena St.Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org