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Ricky Skaggs Returns to His Roots


by Michael Buffalo Smith

June, 1999

Ricky Skaggs has finally found his bliss. After years of performing Top 40 Country music, which netted him twelve number one singles and a wall filled with gold and platinum records, eight CMA awards, including Entertainer of the Year in 1985, and a spot in Billboard Magazine's Top 20 Artists of the decade and Top 100 Artists of the past 50 years, he has returned to his first love, bluegrass music. Speaking from his home in Hendersonville, Tennessee, Skaggs spoke to HOT GRITS about his first true musical love, bluegrass.

I understand a lot of your people are from the hills of Tennessee?
My ancestors came in here, Henry Skaggs was the first anglo-saxon in the middle-Tennessee area, in what is now known as Nashville. He was one of the long hunters. This was all hunting grounds in those days, no one was actually living here. The indians didn't mind you coming in here to hunt, but they didn't want you homesteading. I have a tremendous heritage here of over 200 years. He was here in 1765, before Daniel Boone came here in '70.

What makes you so happy about the music you are making these days?
Going out of bluegrass music, into country for fifteen or eighteen years, and being able to come back now and play this music with a real passion and a mission that I maybe didn't have in 1975. I mean, I always had a passion for the music. But to be able to come back now and play bluegrass music with the love an character and wisdom that I have attained. It's kind of like the prodigal son, in a way. He had to go out and see some things before he was ready to come back home. He got a real education. It wasn't like I squandered my wealth and and all that, but I did have to take a hike and go out there and see the world, almost get educated in some areas I wasn't educated in before, like management and contracts, and the booking agency business, and just the production. Getting my feet wet out there has really paid off big dividends. Being able to come back now and do this music like I want to do it, and having the love and of course, having the record label and everything like that now, and being able to do things to help Del McCoury and Blue Highway and The Whites, The Gibson Brothers, Jimmy and Tammy Sullivan, people that are on our label that we are committed to. I could have never done those kind of things before.

What does the release of a gospel album mean to you?
It's the culmination, the birth of something I have felt pregnant with for over ten years. I've wanted to do a gospel album for so long, and didn't really get the peace, I didn't really get the freedom about doing one when I was on the major labels. Most of it was because I was under contract to do commercial country music, so doing anything other than what the contract called for wasn't done. I had to pretty much adhere to who I was under contract to. Now I am free to go on emotion. I don't have to sit around a table with 20 people telling me why bluegrass won't sell, or why this is bad for my career. My career, as far as superstardom, and getting all the air play in country radio is not an existent thing anymore. That's not something that I ever even consider now when I walk into the studio. When I came to Nashville in 1980, the first three albums, the first one was on Sugar Hill Records, "Sweet Temptation," and the other two "Waiting for the Sun to Shine," and "Highways and Heartaches," those first three albums, I was so green in the business. No one knew who I was, except people who read liner notes and knew I was a sideman with Emmylou Harris, and played a lot of different instruments and sang harmonies and stuff.

As far as national attention, no one knew who I was until I came on the scene and got with Epic Records. I didn't go in with any pre-conceived plan. All I wanted to do was make a great record of songs that I really wanted to sing. It was so fresh and so different at the time, that the critics came to my side and stood with me.Everybody was there to cheer me on because I was a young renegade, kind of a pioneer that was coming out. It was the long hunter spirit coming out again. Then the record companies were wanting another album just like the others. You've always got to be creative and innovative, coming up with something fresh for radio to play. Nowadays, coming up with something different for country radio...I just couldn't...prostitute may not be the right word. I just couldn't find it in myself to come up with the hot new country sounds that these artists are coming up with. It didn't follow the flow of integrity that I've tried to keep with my music. I couldn't play that game anymore. I couldn't be a part of that elite group out there. It was just time for me to to come back and do what I'm doing.

But what it means for me to have a gospel album out now is everything. I'm so satisfied that I've been able to release that part of me that's been in my heart for so long. It's been like a piece of fire wood, like an ember that I've been carrying with me that's inside of me wanting to get out. Now that it's out, I have a desire to do another one some day, but it's not like I want to go in tomorrow and do another gospel album. Gospel albums are things that, if you did them every album you'd be considered a Christian artist. I'm an artist that is a Christian. My whole audience is the secular market that's out there. It's the country music crowd, it's the NASCAR crowd, it's the TNN crowd.
The only music that can even come close to keeping up with NASCAR is bluegrass. It's so fast and furious. Bluegrass and NASCAR are synonymus with each other. We get so revved up before a show, and that banjo and mandolin are just out there churning. It reminds me of NASCAR. We've done two or three shows this year for NASCAR fans and they really eat it up. When you go out there and do "Pig in a Pen" or something blazing, you're talking their language. I'm real happy with this album, it's got great reviews and it's probably the most blatantly evangelistic thing I've ever done as far as speaking about the gospel, talking about basically the fundamentals of Christianity. What's so funny is that country radio stations are playing this record. Not the Top 40 country stations, but there's a lot of stations out there playing "Soldier of the Cross" as well as playing Alison Krauss' new record, and Steve Earle's new record, Jim Lauderdale's new record.

You recently appeared in Charlotte opening for The Dixie Chicks. What's your take on them?
They're making this music fun, and I think that's important for young musicians to see as well. It's like the movie, Mr. Holland's Opus. You can crank out scales and you can crank out theory, and it's just a pain. You're grinding through the motions of trying to play music, but music should be fun and free and an expression of what you are.

Do you think people are moving more toward the honest approach these days, do you think music is headed back towards the real, the roots?
I think it is, and I think we can look back and even connect Riverdance with all of this as well. The explosion that Celtic music has had here and all over the world. It's because it's a reconnection to our roots, our heritage. There's something that happens about every ten years. We go way over to the edge so far that we wonder if it's ever going to come back to the center again. People get so far out that they have a strong desire to come back to what's real and natural, what sounds right and fresh, and I think bluegrass is an absolutely perfect alternative to country music right now. It's not just me that believes this. Dolly Parton has a new album coming out that's going to be all bluegrass. So if she's doing bluegrass, she knows that there's something going on out there. And with Steve Earle and Jim Lauderdale, and so many others...we're doing an album that's going to be a tribute to Bill Monroe sometime next year, that's going to have basically a who's who in music and not just country. We're talking pop, rock and roll, alternative, people that just loved Bill Monroe and his music and appreciated his contribution to American music form. I think people see some of the changes we are making at Skaggs Family Records, and in the bluegrass field as a whole, just how things are changing, and it seems like there's just a better place for us to be now. The records now are more competitive, they sound better, they hold up with other music forms. You can play one of our records back to back with Sting, or with Elton John, or with some country artists. The records now are going to sound big. We've made a lot of advances in that in the last four or five years.

Give me your thoughts on touring with The Del McCoury Band.
I feel honored as a musician to be touring with such great players. Like Ronnie McCoury, I want to break his fingers. I mean, what a great mandolin player. How can he play that fast, that smooth and that clean? And Del is one of the elder statesmen of bluegrass. He's getting a lot of due that was never given to Bill Monroe, and I think people are realizing that we waited too late to honor Mr. Monroe. I think Del is a real example of keeping that flame burning bright. I made Mr. Monroe a vow that I would do my part to promote his music, and promote blue grass and play it the best I could. Just go out and raise the consciousness of this music in a marketplace that may not know anything about it. It's the best kept secret in the music industry, bluegrass music. Working with Del is always great, and Blue Highway is a group I produce. They're on our sister label, Ceili.

And your thoughts on Bill Monroe.
There's a great scripture I think about when I think about him. 'You have many instructors, but you have so few fathers.' He was a true father to me. Not as a father through blood. I've had three fathers in my life. My natural father, Hobert Skaggs; and my spiritual father, a precious man named Bob Jones- not the Bob Jones University one, but Bob Jones from Arkansas. He's been a real mentor and a man that I've learned so much in the spirit from. But Bill Monroe, musically, has been a father to me, and so many others here in Nashville. I think that when the record books are read, and it's all said and done, they'll be talking about Bill Monroe a hundred years from now. And I wonder how many of the new artists that are out there now selling millions of records will be remembered in years to come.

My opinions don't necessarily change the Dow Jones stock market, but in my opinion, I think Bill Monroe single handedly influenced more musicians, singers and songwriters, than anyone who ever came to Nashville. I realize what Hank Williams did. There weren't a lot of sad songs or cheating and drinking songs then. He was the rebel that kicked that door open with his boot heel. He said things a lot of people wanted to say but were afraid to. He was so open and honest about his dishonesty and his mixed up life, it caused songwriters to say, if he can do that, I can too. I'm lonesome too. It opened it up for Don Gibson and so many others.

Bill Monroe influenced people like Hank Williams. He was a songwriter's songwriter. He wrote some of the greatest songs in this music. And he influenced much more than just country music. People like Buddy Holly. If you listen to some of Bill's songs from the late '30's and early '40's, songs like "The Road is Rocky, But it Won't Be Rocky Long," he called it "Rocky Road Blues," if you listen to the bouncing feel of the guitar and the slap bass, that was the early stages, the birthplace of what Bill Haley came out with later, that whole rockabilly feel. It was started by Bill Monroe. And Buddy Holly, and Paul McCartney, who loved that duet style of singing, Carl Perkins and Elvis-they idolized Mr. Monroe.

And The Everly Brothers, he took them on the road and let them open shows when they were just kids, you know. So he really paved the way. I don't think that Nashville ever really gave Bill Monroe the nod of the hat, because he wouldn't kiss the ring. He had too much pride. Pride in a good way. He was too proud to bow his knee to the god of radio, and he wouldn't suck up. He survived Elvis Presley's rock and roll, he survived The Beatles. In the '60's, what he did was he went out and started bluegrass festivals. Now they draw 30 and 40 thousand people to these bluegrass festivals in the summer. He kept reinventing himself. He took an instrument that was almost a feminine type of instrument, a soft instrument that was never featured as a lead instrument, and made it a lead instrument, building a band around it. That in itself was quite a musical feat.


Special thanks to Ricky and Skaggs Family Records for the interview and the great show at The Peace Center. Thanks to Del McCory and his band, Blue Highway, and Gene Berger at Horizon Records/Productions in Greenville, SC.

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