Ricky Skaggs, Stays True To Himself With Music To My Ears

Ricky Skaggs – Stays True To Himself With Music To My Ears
By Bill Conger

You can’t please all the people all the time. That’s a lesson Ricky Skaggs has learned all too well. He’d like to make everyone happy with the music that he passionately performs year after year. At the same time, though, it’s vital that he remain true to himself, playing the style and sounds that are music to his ears, whether it’s bluegrass, country, or a cross-pollination of various genres. The result has made him a legend in the music field, who in 2012 was honored with the Academy of Country Music’s Pioneer Award and inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.

During his more than fifty years of playing, he has scored twelve chart-topping hits, fourteen Grammys, eight CMA Awards including Entertainer Of The Year, eleven IBMA trophies, eight ACM awards, two Dove awards, and nine Inspirational Country Music awards. Despite his tremendous success, he knows his decision to venture outside the core sound of bluegrass has caused the alienation of some bluegrass devotees who cling reverently to the early days of the music.

“I don’t know why they don’t like me,” Skaggs said. “It’s okay. I love them anyway. It’s a hard road to walk trying to please everyone. You just can’t do it.”

Skaggs rapidly rose up through the traditional bluegrass community echelon. The Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe, picked up a six-year-old little Ricky onto the Martha, Ky., high-school gym stage beside him, placed his famous mandolin around the little boy’s neck, and listened as Skaggs played and sang “Ruby, Are You Mad At Your Man?” A year later, the child prodigy had his first paid job when he played for bluegrass icons Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs on their popular Martha White country music variety-TV show. The legendary Ralph Stanley nurtured Skaggs’ talent, taking him under his wing as a member of the Clinch Mountain Boys when Skaggs was still a teenager. Then, he went on to prestigious gigs with the Country Gentlemen, J.D. Crowe & the New South, Boone Creek, and Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band. He began to stray from the pure traditional sound of the genre and walk down a more progressive path. He took this blend of bluegrass and country music to Nashville where he landed a record deal with CBS/Sony.

“That was a home-run for me. If I had come to Nashville and tried to play straight bluegrass, I could have stayed on Sugar Hill, or Rounder may have signed me. But that would have been it. I had a great opportunity to try to bring bluegrass to the mainstream marketplace of the music industry by doing the things that I did.”

Unfortunately, recording a true bluegrass record while he was working for a major country label wasn’t an option. “I could never have done a straight bluegrass record on CBS. There’s no way. It was in my contract (commercial country songs), which meant songs they felt could get radio airplay. My dad tried for years to just keep encouraging me. He said, ‘Son, you need to do you a good bluegrass record.’ I said, ‘I know dad, but contractually, I can’t do it.’ ‘Well, son, I’d get out of that deal. I’d drop that outfit.’ I said, ‘Dad, you raised me to be a man of my word.’ So I had to walk it through.”

He was able to record “Country Boy,” and for the music video, he included a cameo of Bill Monroe buck dancing on a subway with breakdancers! That song was one in a long list of hit singles such as “Uncle Pen,” “I Wouldn’t Change You If I Could,” “Heartbroke,” “Honey (Open That Door),” “Crying My Heart Out Over You,” “Highway 40 Blues,” and “Don’t Get Above Your Raising,” and “Don’t Cheat In Our Hometown,” many of which had originally been done in bluegrass style by his heroes, Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, and the Stanley Brothers.

Skaggs loved the music, but after a while, the pressures of the business became too demanding. “Just the busyness and the work, the interviews, the press, all the management, dealing with the record label all the time, trying to be a good dad, and all the pressures of life, it got to a place where music was really a job. As much as I loved my job, loved my work, it was still hard to do.”

He returned to his first love, bluegrass, in 1996 and started Skaggs Family Records the following year. He approached the music again with new vim. “Certainly, when Mr. Monroe passed away, I know that I went back to the original well and really started to drink from that, and I really tried to get in his head and listen to the music again with fresh ears, and I tried to promote bluegrass the best way I knew how.”

Not needing to kowtow to commercial country expectations any longer, he was able to flex his creative muscles. One energetic foot was planted firmly in traditional bluegrass while the other tiptoed into crossover projects with artists like Bruce Hornsby and, most recently, with Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees.

“I just feel like I’m in a place now where I’m a lot more creative, because I don’t have the pressures of having to come up with songs that radio would play, like I used to back in the country days when I was trying to walk that line of trying to keep the country music and bluegrass people happy which is never, ever going to happen. So I realized I just needed to get over that and quit worrying about it and quit worrying about what I read in the blogs and that kind of stuff and just make music for myself and for people I know that like what I do. I think that’s the joy of where I am right now.”

Skaggs latest project is his CD, Music To My Ears. He reunited with his Grammy-winning friend, Gordon Kennedy, who co-produced and co-wrote all the tunes on the Mosaic album, for his latest CD. “I didn’t want to make it real, real country sounding with pedal steel and electric guitar, all of that,” Skaggs said. “I knew as good as that would sound on some of the songs, I really wanted it to still be, majority-wise, a bluegrass record. I knew there was some really good ol’ bluegrass songs that we wanted to try to fire up a little bit, kind of redo them with some different arrangements, like ‘Blue Night.’ We were doing that one on the road, and the band was playing the heck out of it. It was just a good groove.”

Skaggs recorded a couple of other standards like “Travelin’ Down This Lonesome Road,” which will be released on a future CD, and the Stanley Brothers song, “Lonesome River.” Those songs didn’t make the final master because of a deadline, but the legendary duo’s “Loving You Too Well” did. Skaggs got to play Pee Wee Lambert’s old mandolin on that cut, which Lambert played on the original Stanley Brothers recording from the early ’50s.

In a similar vein, the album’s title cut was a traditional sounding tune that fit him to a T. “It just had this old mountain kind of sound to it. Of all the songs on the record, that one sounds more like the music to my ears, because it has the ‘Stanley love’ to it, and all that good mountain stuff from my parents, especially my mom. My mother could have killed the tenor on that song. She would have loved it. That’s the way I was raised. There’s so much about that song that has my thumbprint all over it.”

Skaggs and Kennedy also made a reverent nod to the past with the humorous Bill Monroe inspired song, “You Can’t Hurt Ham.”

“That is definitely a true song,” Skaggs said. “It talks about the durability and the indestructibility of cured pork. It’s just a fun song, and people love it when we go out and sing it,” Skaggs said. “It’s a great tribute to the very funny Bill Monroe as well. He had some great sayings.”

The song begins with Monroe heading out late one night to a bluegrass date with his band. Big Mon complains that he’s hungry, but all the restaurants were already closed.

Then the Banjo man said he had a plan, thought he might save the night.
From a greasy little snack tucked way in the back of the bus, he gave his all;
A bunch of country ham and biscuits, his mom made him for the haul.
Bout two days old, done starting to mold said the banjo picking man
Mon said, boy bring me that sack; you know you can’t hurt ham.

That banjo player was Alan O’Bryant, a current member of the Nashville Bluegrass Band, but the story has taken a creative twist or two from what truly happened.

“I had driven overnight to Lavonia, Ga., from visiting my folks in my childhood home Reidsville, N.C.,” O’Bryant recalled. “It was a very hot summer day. First thing that morning, Bill was sitting up front of the bus by himself, and I came in to say good morning and offered him some of the biscuits that had been prepared the day before and had ridden in the front seat of my car, wrapped, two to a pack in wax paper. I explained they had not been refrigerated, upon which he leaned over the seat and replied, ‘Oh, you can’t hurt ham.’ He enjoyed them very much.”

Skaggs also plays homage to Doc Watson, whom he met in the 1970s, with the song “Tennessee Stud.”

“I went to Doc’s house and met Rosa Lee. She cooked dinner for all of us. Me and Doc and Merle all sat around and talked for hours about music, life, and old log cabins, which I ended up buying one from Merle. When MerleFest started, we were among the first up there trying to help make North Carolina’s Wilkes Community College into a thriving music event. I haven’t played it since me and Bruce Hornsby did five years, and we ask for it every year. I don’t understand why we don’t get to play it anymore. It’s still one of my favorite festivals to work. I love the people of Wilkes County. My eighth great grandmother was a Cherokee from Wilkes County; she married Old Peter Skaggs from Fincastle, Va. So, I’ve got long old roots in that part of Carolina.”

To this day, one of Skaggs favorite projects is The Three Pickers DVD featuring Earl Scruggs, Watson, and himself. “I wish Three Pickers could have been Monroe, Scruggs, and Doc. I wish that could have happened early enough to where Mr. Monroe could have been a part of it, and I could just be a fly on the wall there. I would just love to have seen that, especially in light that they’re all three gone.”

Skaggs showed another side of his diverse musical personality with “Soldiers Son” that Barry Gibb of Saturday Night Fever fame co-wrote. “He sent it to me as a demo,” Skaggs explained. “He and I have been talking for two or three years about doing a project together. I don’t know exactly what it’s going to become.”

In the meantime, Gibb wanted to float some songs that he penned to Skaggs. His first pitch was a winner. “I said write 11 more of these, and we’ve got a great record.’ He said, ‘I was kind of thinking you might want to do that on your bluegrass record.’ I said, ‘Well, I think I could.’ I could see my musical gloves on this. I could hear fiddle and that big ol’ chubby, gut string fretless banjo that I played, and mandolin and Irish Pipes.”

Skaggs invited Gibb to record the song with him and, without hesitation, he accepted. Skaggs also brought his music partner on stage for Bluegrass Nights At The Ryman and, the next night, a debut performance at the Grand Ole Opry. “This is the center of the universe musically,” Gibb said onstage at his July 28 Opry appearance.

“He still talks about it,” Skaggs said. “He said one of the greatest things that’s ever happened to him was getting to play on the Grand Ole Opry. The number two most grossing songwriter in the world and to be fired up and say that about being on the Opry. That’s a pretty big deal.”

Of course for the album, Skaggs brought into the studio some of his all-star lineup of Kentucky Thunder bandmembers: Andy Leftwich (fiddle), Cody Kilby (lead guitar), Paul Brewster (tenor vocals, rhythm guitar), Eddie Faris (baritone vocals, guitar), and Justin Moses (banjo, background vocals). Scott Mulvahill, the newest member of the band, who replaced bassist Mark Fain, opted out of the recording. Barry Bales stepped in to help out.

“I love Barry’s playing!” Skaggs said. “I just never had a chance to record anything with him, but this was great. Scott felt like he was not ready to go in and record a record with us just yet. He hadn’t played with us long enough at that point, and I’m glad he felt that way. I’m glad he didn’t say, ‘I’m the bass player now.’ So, he really took me off the hook, so that I was able to get whomever I wanted to, and I really wanted to use Barry. I just felt his style of playing would be great for this record.”

Skaggs admires his band of acoustic whizzes and especially praised the contribution of Moses to the project. “His banjo playing is great because he plays so many styles. He can play traditional, like ‘You Can’t Hurt Ham,’ but he can also play things like ‘You’re Something Else’ or ‘Nothing Beats A Family,’ and I love his Dobro playing.

“I asked him one day, ‘Do you have a Weissenborn [lap slide guitar]?’ I was kind of thinking about a Weissenborn sound on Music To My Ears. He ordered it online, and it came in the day before the session. He tuned it up, brought it to the session, and played it. He had never really played one before. It has a little shorter scale than a Dobro, but he did great on it. He is such an awesome musician, and I’m so proud to have him in the band. He’s a great singer, too, so I’ve been trying to find some stuff he can sing on. It’s a different sound than Paul and me, but it’s really good in a different way. I like it a lot. Of course, the addition of Kentucky Thunder makes any record sound good.”

Normally, when Skaggs records an album, he confesses he gets tired of it, but that wasn’t true this time.

“A lot of times, I would live with rough mixes [of the music] and, by the end of the project, I’d be so tired of the record, I’m ready to go off to something new. This one hasn’t been that way. This whole project, I lived without rough mixes. I’d go back into the studio, and we’d pick up where we left off the day before, and I kind of knew in my head what I wanted to do. Maybe that was good. Maybe it wasn’t.

“Having my own recording studio has been one of the greatest blessings ever! Great old microphones and outboard gear that I’ve collected for a long time. I’ve listened to this record a lot since it’s been finished. I just love the way it sounds.”

For Skaggs, that’s what matters most. The music explorer wants to continue making music that pays respect to the history of bluegrass while blazing new trails of his own. The final outcome, he hopes, will be music not only to his ears, but also to fans across the music spectrum.

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