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AUDIO: Interview with bluegrass-country artist Ricky Skaggs, with transcript

2012 October 4
by Steve Ide
Ricky Skaggs, Music to My Ears CD

At 58, bluegrass-country artist Ricky Skaggs believes he is a keeper of a musical tradition.

The Kentucky-born multi-instrumentalist, known in bluegrass music circles for his high-reaching vocals and mandolin picking, appreciates what the forerunners did for bluegrass music. With his new CD, Music to My Ears,” Skaggs attempts to honor them, while staying true to a variety of styles that keep the music fun.

“When I came to Nashville in the early ’80s, my heart was really to bridge country and bluegrass together,” said Skaggs, by phone, from his home in Hendersonville, Tenn. “I just felt that there was somehow that I could merge the two kinds of music together in a way that would be commercial.”

That formula has worked for Skaggs, who, after forming his own Skaggs Family Records, has garnered 14 Grammy awards, seven Country Music Awards and a dozen awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association.

Listen to the entire interview (23 minutes, 16MB)

In March, he and his band, Kentucky Thunder, toured Europe and switched between playing bluegrass and country. they switched it up, starting with bluegrass, then breaking out electric guitar, drums and piano for country songs. “It’s just a blast to be able to do it all and do the kind of music that I really love.”

The new CD includes classic bluegrass, like “Blue Night,” popularized by the “Father of Bluegrass Music” Bill Monroe, an original, but traditional-sounding instrumental “New Jerusalem,” and an old Don Stover song “Things in Life,” in which Skaggs plays clawhammer banjo. “That’s one of the things that I really love to do is play that old-style banjo.”

Skaggs retells the comical story of a Monroe binge in “You Can’t Hurt Ham.” “I apologize to people for that one,” Skaggs jokes. “It’s a song about the durability of cured pork.” “It’s a real true story about Bill Monroe having an experience with [a] day-old country ham biscuit because he was at the verge of starving.”

Ricky Skaggs at the Podunk Bluegrass Festival in 2010 ~ Photo by Stephen Ide

Ricky Skaggs at the Podunk Bluegrass Festival in 2010 ~ Photo by Stephen Ide

The title track, Skaggs says, speaks to the strength of music and faith: “To me, it’s the language of God.” Skaggs, affirming his Christian beliefs, said music bridges cultures and conflict. “There’s something about music that people will lay their arms down and quit fighting.”

The album features a duet with Barry Gibb (yes, of the Bee Gees) in “Soldier’s Son.” And it dips into country in one of several songs by Grammy-winning songwriter/co-producer Gordon Kennedy with “What Are You Waiting For” and the uplifting “Nothing Beats a Family.”

Skaggs dedicates the bluegrass standard “Tennessee Stud” to the late Doc Watson, and is effusive in his praise of the amazing flatpicking guitarist, who died in May: “Doc was a real pioneer … His guitar playing was rhythm and lead at the same time … he made all of us think we could play guitar, you know?”He was so easy, so plain and simple with it that he inspired a real generation to play guitar. That was one of the things that I really took from him.

Skaggs, who’s recorded on more than 30 albums, began playing music at 5, and at 6 was brought onto the stage by Bill Monroe. He went on to perform with the legendary Flatt & Scruggs, then paired with Keith Whitley. By 1970 he and Whitley were hired into Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys. Skaggs later performed with the Country Gentlemen, J.D. Crowe & the New South and later with Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band. He returned to the bluegrass fold in 1996.

Going forward, Skaggs says he’s written an autobiography that should be released next year, and plans to tour with Bruce Hornsby promoting a live album of their shows together recorded several years ago.

Listen to the interview (23 minutes, 16MB)


Steve Ide: How do envision your role within country and bluegrass?

RICKY SKAGGS: They’re cousins, or brothers and sisters. It’s out of the same family. Country music is to me the tree that all this music really kind of comes from. But when I came to Nashville in the early 80s, my heart was really to bridge country and bluegrass together. Because when I was with EmmyLou Harris a few years before that, I had really taken my bluegrass chops and understanding and knowledge to her band. There was a couple of really great records that came out of that, was Roses In the Snow and a lot of the stable were Christmas records. Knowing that I could blend bluegrass with the kind of music she was doing, I know I learned a lot about country music while I was with her band. So when she decided to take a year off – she decided to take a year off to have her baby and everything – I wanted to come to Nashville and …. Are you there still? When I come to Nashville, I just felt that there was somehow that I could merge the two kinds of music together in a way that would be commercial. Waiting For the Sun to Shine was my first record to do that with, and so it’s worked. Even coming back into bluegrass music in ’96, like I did starting my label Skaggs Family, that’s still been the mantra, just do music that I love. That was the main reason really for doing Skaggs Family Records. One of the main reasons anyway, was to have a label where I could do the kind of music I wanted to do. When I got inspired to do a gospel album, I could do it. Like “Mozaic,” a prime example, a record about four years ago, was really not bluegrass and it wasn’t country and it wasn’t really gospel as I know it, as I’ve heard it. But the lyrics certainly were. Great, great lyrics. Gordon Kennedy, a great songwriter. I guess it just comes natural to weave in and out of the country and bluegrass thing. One of the things we’ve been doing in the last two years, we have been actually going out and doing some shows, we’ll have Kentucky Thunder, the bluegrass band, open up. We go out and open up with bluegrass for about 40 minutes, 45 minutes, and then I bring my old steel guitar player, my drummer and piano player with me, and they come out and kind of mesh in with Kentucky Thunder and we end up doing the country hits. I play my electric guitar and we do all of that. So it’s just a blast to be able to do it all and do the kind of music that I really love.

SI: It’s kind of your Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers alter-ego.

RS: I guess so. I come out and play Ricky Skaggs Country Boy during that time, I guess, and Honey Open that Door. But it’s fine, and I love it. We went to Europe in March and took the country guys with us over there. It’s really the first time the Europeans, the fans that I’ve had over there for years, had really gotten a chance to hear me play this kind of music since, gosh, back in the early 90s, last time I was over there with a country band before I kind of went bluegrass.

SI: Off-topic…are you in a contest with Del McCoury for the best hair in bluegrass?

RS: Ha. No, I don’t think anyone can beat Del McCoury’s hair. He’s definitely got the bluegrass hair. I wouldn’t consider my hair bluegrass hair. My wife says “Moses hair.” People have called it everything. I have never, never had a mullet. And I can go back and look. I have not had a mullet (talking to his wife and laughing). My wife’s sitting next to me and giving me a hard time. But anyway, I do get a lot of riding on the hair business. ‘We love Ricky a lot, but why won’t he cut that hair?’

SI: On new CD, what are your favorite tracks and why?

RS: I love the way the album starts with “Blue Night.” It’s just such a statement of bluegrass. Everything about that song, the arrangement and everything is just right 100% down the middle of the road bluegrass. Of course it’s an old Bill Monroe song that he got from Kirk McGee, Sam and Kirk McGee that played on the Grand Ol’ Opry for many years. But he recorded it back in the 60s. Then we kind of rearranged it and everything and did it on this new record. The old Don Stover song, Things in Life, I really love. I love getting to play the clawhammer banjo on that. That’s one of the things that I really love to do is play that old-style banjo. Course “Can’t Hurt Ham.” I apologize to people for that one. It’s a song about the durability of cured pork. It’s a nice quote from AP. … It’s a real true story about Bill Monroe having an experience with [a] day-old country ham biscuit cuz he was at the verge of starving, he said. Said you can’t hurt ham, no matter how old it is. It’s got a long shelf life.

SI: Is that a story you know first-hand?

RS: I don’t know it first-hand, but it’s been handed down through the bluegrass years. I probably need to go to the banjo player that I assume was the banjo player in the band. I need to probably get his story from it. But we wrote a song about it anyway. Songs don’t always have to be 100% correct. They can go out a bit on the limb.

SI: I’m sure you can take some license with a song about ham.

RS: Oh, yeh, that’s definitely sure. The title cut, Music to My Ears, to me is one of my favorite songs. I love what it talks about. I love just the power that music has. To me, it’s the language of God, music is. I feel it’s part of his nature. Music was created by him and for him. As a Christian, I’m very strong in my faith and believing that music can reach the nations and touch the nations in ways that politicians, people could never ever touch the nations and bring peace to people like music can. It is truly an international language. I know that phrase is used a lot. But there’s something about music that people will lay their arms down and quit fighting over certain things. It’s a great song about a wonderful thing we have in music.

SI: It sort of bridges culture and conflict.

Absolutely, yeh. It sure does. And I love some of the more country sounding things like “Hold on to What You’re Waiting For” and “You’re Something Else.” Those are great songs. Of course I love the way the record ends with “Nothing Beats a Family.” That’s such a great statement for the family. And it’s so true. I mean everything in that song is so truthful. Gordon Kennedy just wrote another classic, I think. I love that song. Getting a lot of response on that one.

SI: Wondering how Doc and Earl influenced you over the years.

RS: Well, Doc was a real pioneer. He took an instrument that was pretty much a rhythm instrument. An acoustic guitar for years, especially in American-style music, mountain music, old-time country music, was an instrument to play along with a fiddle and back up a fiddle or a banjo or something like that. And Doc played a lot of square dances when he was young. I’ve done a square dance or two as a fiddler and I know that after you’ve played it through three or four times that right arm gets to wanting to fall off your shoulder. So I’m sure somebody said to him one time, “Take it, Doc.” And he just started picking out what the fiddle player played. He developed a style around that. His guitar playing was rhythm and lead at the same time. The way he played. And it was a very unique sound, and he made all of us think we could play guitar, you know? He was so easy, so plain and simple with it that he inspired a real generation to play guitar. That was one of the things that I really took from him.

RS: With Earl, Earl was another pioneer that took an almost comedic, Vaudeville-type instrument and made a lead, solo instrument out of it. I mean, no one was doing what Earl Scruggs did when he was 21 years old and came into Bill Monroe’s band. In 1945 December Monroe hired him. But he was one that really inspired me because, well, he was a total family man. He loved his boys. He loved playing music with them. He never let the music business become serious to him. He was a serious player and a serious person when it come to his playing, but he never ever let the business dictate what he played and how he responded to his family and his friends.

His wife was a tremendous influence in Nashville as being a great manager, a very very strong woman. A lot of women are in the industry today because of her trailblazing in the music community as a woman and so we really honor her as well as Earl. She was quite a manager. There wouldn’t have been a Flatt & Scruggs “Beverly Hillbillies” television stars that they were had it not been for Louise really making those kinds of deals. She just knew how to do it and made him very very famous. Worked with the record label and made them do what they were supposed to do. So she was quite a lady.

SI: Do you see yourself carrying the next generation of the bluegrass torch?

RS: Well I feel like I’m trying to. … It’s an honor to do it. It’s something I feel like it’s my role, now being 58 years old … [dealt with a family matter] Trying to be star. Not star. You know what I mean. I’m trying to be entertainer, and do my work and then be a good loyal husband and be able to bring my wife to the car dealership to have her car worked on. So I just brought her up here. Trying to be domestic and all that at the same time.

SI: What keeps it interesting to you? What keeps it fun?

RS: Seeing the youth. Seeing kids come to our shows bringing fiddles, banjos, mandolins and guitars for us to sign and sitting out on the front row watching my band Kentucky Thunder. They’re just an incredible band. The fiddle player Andy Leftwich, Cody Kilby the acoustic guitar player, Justin Moses the banjo player, being as versatile as he is playing banjo, mandolin and fiddle, dobro, just inspiring these young kids. I inspire my band because of the age that I am, having these guys, some of them are still in their 20s in my band. I just hired a new bass player that’s 23, the age of my youngest son. That inspires me, but yet being able to … Ralph Stanley, he and a guy named Curly Seckler who played with Flatt & Scruggs back in the ’40s all the way through til Lester passed away, getting to see those guys from time to time and still knowing that those old elders are still around and yet having those elders say to me as a father and somewhat older, ‘you’re doing a good job. Appreciate what you’re doing. You just keep on keeping it pure.’ Knowing those people are still listening. You know Ralph still listens to what I’m doin’ and different, old musicians that was in bluegrass back in the ’40s, some of them are still around, you know?

I’m getting to carry on a tradition with a mandolin that I bought two years ago that came to me, I never ever ever in a million years thought I would ever have. It’s Pee Wee Lambert’s old mandolin that Pee Wee played with the Stanley Brothers back in the ’40s and recorded all those classic Stanley Brothers hits like White Dove, Lonesome River, The Angels are Singing in Heaven Tonight, Fields that Turn Brown, all those classic things, that really high-lonesome trio sound that they had. That was his mandolin. And it’s had more owners than the red violin, but it’s made its way to me. My mother tried to buy it for me back in 1970. When I was 15 years old working with Ralph Stanley, she figured out somehow how to call Pee Wee’s widow, cuz Pee Wee died in 1965 and the mandolin was broken at a bar in 1961 and thrown in a trash can. And some guys fished it out and tried to fix the neck and the headstock and all that. So it’s just had an incredible story. But Miss Lambert told my mom she didn’t know where it was at, which was true. She didn’t know who had it or anything like that, that she hadn’t seen it since 1961. But my mother, I think, just in her heart, she wanted me to have that mandolin and I think she prayed for it, you know, for many years. I never even knew that she called Hazel [Lambert]. My mother never told me about the phone conversation. And my mother passed away in 2000 and went to heaven. And when I got the mandolin two years ago, in 2010, the first person I wanted to show it to was Miss Hazel, Hazel Lambert. I wanted her to see it. That it had been restored, and I was playing it now and I was carrying on a tradition of this music. So I went to her house in Columbus, Ohio, and showed her the mandolin. So we’re sitting there talking. I’ve got a video camera out recording our conversation and all of a sudden she drops this bomb on me: “Well, honey, you don’t remember? You don’t know anything about the phone call?” And I said “What phone call?” And she said, “Honey, your mother called me in 1970. When you and Keith Whitley was with Ralph up here in Columbus. She called me and wanted to buy Pee Wee’s mandolin for you.” And I’m telling you, I lost it. I balled like a three-year-old kid. Just knowing that my mom had a role to play in me having this mandolin. I mean it’s forever with me. She’s with me in my heart. I feel Pee Wee’s pleasure, knowing that it’s safe and ain’t gonna be thrown in a trash can any more. That it’s with a hard-workin’ family. That it’s definitely gonna be out there playin’ and keeping a tradition in this music.

SI: It came full circle for you and you didn’t know it.

RS: I know it, and that’s just amazing to me.

SI: What’s next for you and if there is anything you’d like to add?

RS: Well, I think we’ve gone over everything. Just promoting this record. Got a new book coming out next year. I say a new book. It’s the only book I’ve ever done and it may be the only one I ever do. It’s an autobiography. Don’t really have a title quite yet. The publishers have it right now, Harper-Collins. They’re going through and doing some edits and I’ll get a chance to read through it and make sure it still sounds like me and it’s about me in the book and it ain’t somethin’ else. Got that coming out next year. Bruce Honsby and I have a project we’re going to be finishing up. It’s a live album we did about 5 or 6 years ago. We went out and promoted a CD that we did together, and in-studio CD, but then we recorded a bunch of live shows, and those live shows are pretty phenomenal. So we’re going to put that out as a live album and go back out and tour that in 2013.

Kinda hopin’ and prayin’ for a better time in America. Hopin’ that some things will turn around this election.

SI: Who are you voting for?

RS: I’m voting for Mitt Romney. I really am. I just see a lot with all that’s goin’ on in America. I feel like we need a change. I feel like he has a heart for Israel. You know a lot of people blame Israel for everything that happens. There’d be an earthquake in China and they’ll blame Israel for it, you know? And they’re the most hated group of people in the whole world. But God chose them many, many centuries ago as his own people, and I think, if we’re Christians, we’ve got to really stand for Israel at any cost, at any time, you know, no matter what. They don’t always do everything right. But they are God’s chosen people, and he said “if we’ll bless Israel, he’ll bless us. If we curse Israel, we’ll be cursed.” So I take God at his word. So hopefully things are turning around. I think America can turn around, but it’s a deeper problem than political. I think it’s a spiritual condition with the church, and a spiritual need in America. “Woe to a nation,” the Bible says, “Woe to a nation that calls good evil, and evil good.” And I think that’s where we are, unfortunately.

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