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Bluegrass Believer
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On Sunday night, Feb. 13, Ricky Skaggs picked up his tenth Grammy Award. This time around, the charismatic musician from Cordell, Ky., won for “Best Bluegrass Album” of the year.

The record in question, Brand New Strings, is the latest in a long line of impressive releases on Ricky’s own independent label, Skaggs Family Records – an imprint he formed in 1997 after a long and fruitful association with the more established, Nashville-based country outfits.

The teenage mandolin prodigy first came to national attention when he and his close friend the late Keith Whitley were taken under the wing of bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley. Before long, Ricky was making a name for himself through subsequent sideman work with progressive acoustic artists such as J.D. Crowe & The New South.

His breakout success, however, would come with a pronounced shift toward popular country music in the late ‘70s. After joining the high-profile ranks of Emmylou Harris’ famed Hot Band, he jumpstarted his own solo career as both a bandleader and frontman, by issuing a series of meticulously-produced LPs which cemented his place at the top of the country charts for most of the ‘80s.

Now, in the fourth decade of his professional career, he has returned to his roots, and rededicated himself with a fervor to playing and promoting traditional bluegrass and gospel music.

A devout Christian and family man, Skaggs is now riding the wave of interest in traditional American mountain music which began in the late nineties with the advent of the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack’s surprise crossover success.

Since that landmark event (the repercussions of which are still being felt throughout the entire industry), he and his label have released work by some of the finest exponents of the “neo-traditionalist” movement which Skaggs himself epitomizes – such as The Del McCoury Band, The Whites, Mountain Heart and Blue Highway.

Now, in 2005, the man the late, great Chet Atkins once publicly thanked for “single-handedly saving country music” in the ‘80s is once more attempting to fan the flames. Skaggs and I spoke at length only a few days after the Grammies, and his passion for – and dedication to – bluegrass was in evidence from the start.

Connect Savannah: Have you played Savannah before?

Ricky Skaggs: I was thinkin’ we’d played there sometime in the early ‘90s, but maybe not. I know some people may read that and say, well I guess it wasn’t that memorable a show for him if he’s not even sure. But when you do a hundred and some dates every year, they do start to run together in some ways. I love Savannah, though. I’ve been there several times on the way to other places, and the band’s really looking forward to the Music Festival.

Connect Savannah: You've been at this professionally for 33 years. Is the industry a better place to work now than when you began, or a worse one?

Ricky Skaggs: Well, I think in many ways it’s much, much better. We have buses to travel in and jets to fly. We can be to Los Angeles in a few hours, where our predecessors and the people who really started this music – like Bill Monroe, The Stanley Brothers and Flatt & Scruggs – they had to drive four days, and work their way out, just to have enough money to even make the trip. There was a tremendous price paid. I don’t think a lot of people really understand the high cost of this music, and what it took to keep this music around. I mean, when you think of all that Bill Monroe had to endure, just to keep this thing alive in the ‘50s, what with rock and roll and all... Folks like Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins and Elvis – they were doin’ Bill Monroe songs. They got turned on to it, and they loved him because he wasn’t a sappy country singer. He was in your face, in almost the same way as they were. I think he’s in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, because they know just how important he was to all of that. Elvis’ version of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” was one of the first rock and roll songs, you know? So, while he was out trying to survive, he was sowing seeds to this new generation that really came back to haunt him. No one ever meant to do that, but that fire couldn’t be contained. Especially when it got into the hearts and minds of young people with electric guitars. But he survived that in the ‘50s and he survived The Beatles in the ‘60s. He even survived Nashville. You know, Nashville has never really tipped its hat to bluegrass, and given it the blessing it did with regular country music.

Connect Savannah: Why is that?

Ricky Skaggs: I don’t know, but it’s a very deep chasm. A lot of the heads of the companies that work here aren’t really country music lovers. They’re more businessmen. Even though, years ago, some of the big guys like Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins appreciated bluegrass. As far as now, I think the label heads still look at bluegrass as being kind of an insignificant, low sales type of cult genre. The people that make bluegrass besides Alison (Krauss) and Rhonda (Vincent) and Nickel Creek – who’ve done a few CMT videos – that’s about all you’ve gotten from there. I will say, though, that CMT seems to have a desire to include more acoustic music in their programming and I’m working to develop some shows.

Connect Savannah: It’s a smaller fanbase, but much more more fervent.

Ricky Skaggs: You can see that on the faces of the 40,000 people at Merlefest every year. I’m planning to start a bluegrass festival of my own in Kentucky next year. To me, music is such an art form. Especially something like bluegrass. To link that to Kentucky folk arts, I think will not only reach out to the whole state, but coast to coast. We may even get some help from PBS and the Smithsonian Institution who’ve done a great job at keeping folk music and bluegrass alive.

Connect Savannah: It seems as though in Nashville there’s still this lingering image of it being unsophisticated hillbilly music – which is ironic, as it’s actually a very technical style.

Ricky Skaggs: I think you’re right on both counts. Bluegrass is basically built around a band, and country music is built around a person. That’s the big difference, right there. It’s hard to look at the success that it’s enjoyed since ‘96, with the O Brother thing, and say it’s not made a tremendous comeback. But it’s not only a comeback. Country has its valleys and peaks, but we seem to be on a steady climb.

Connect Savannah: I’ve heard so many people say things like, “I never dug bluegrass – until I listened to it.”

Ricky Skaggs: We get that a lot. People say, “I really don’t like bluegrass, but I like what you do.” Well... okay. (laughs)

Connect Savannah: What do you say?

Ricky Skaggs: Well, you just have to realize that they don’t know that much about the history of bluegrass, or what it is exactly that I do. but I do understand that a lot of people associate older bluegrass with their parents, because that’s what they listened to. And some people are always gonna want to be different from their parents, and they certainly don’t wanna listen to the same music as them. Now, I love listening to my mom and dad’s music! (laughs) They raised me up on old Jimmie Rodgers, and Ernest Tubb, and my mom loved George Jones. We had all sorts of wonderful music in my house, and it was a great education. I reflect on it now, and I can see where people might not have cared for some of the bluegrass bein’ made 25 or 30 years ago. This music is a whole lot better in lots of ways today. The recording quality is definitely better. The songs that people are tryin’ to write are very good in many ways. Back then, they were writin’ about “the little cabin on the hill,” and “will you be lovin’ another man,” and wartime songs. Of course, there were always songs about mother and songs about home and family. Those threads run through the music and I think it always will. It always honors God and carries a gospel aspect to it. That’s a big reason it’s survived all these years. Its never been afraid to sing songs about Christ, or hidden behind political correctness.

Connect Savannah: Tell me a little bit about what it was like to work for Ralph Stanley. Was that a difficult gig to get?

Ricky Skaggs: Really, how that whole thing came about was that Keith Whitley and I went to see him in a little club in West Virginia, and his bus had broken down, so he was running about an hour late. The clubowner had heard we played some music, so he asked my dad if we’ brought our instruments. It was like the American Express Card, we never left home without ‘em. (laughs) So, we got up and played about 45 minutes, and Ralph come walkin’ in, and heard us. Of course, at the time, about everything we knew well were Stanley Brothers songs. We’d only known each other about two or three months, and hadn’t even been singin’ together for that long. But Ralph really took a likin’ to us, so one summer we went and played some shows with him. He told us to go back to high school and graduate, but he said we’d have a job waitin’ on us when we got out. So, we did that, and then worked steady with him for about two years.

Connect Savannah: So many people talk about playing with Ralph like it's a type of higher education. Was it that for you?

Ricky Skaggs: It was like a student sittin’ before a professor. If I’d been a student of math or physics, to be able to sit down with Albert Einstein – that would have been the ultimate. But for a mountain kid who was growin’ up in Eastern Kentucky, learnin’ old-time mountain music – to get to work with Ralph Stanley was about the highest thing we could’ve done. I always loved Bill Monroe, but there was just something about the Stanley Brothers that spoke to my heart, you know? Bein’ raised in the mountains, there was something they had that was different from anybody else. The Stanley Brothers had that high, lonesome vocal sound. They sung the way people really sung up there and so they were our heroes. Playin’ with Ralph was a great way to become known in the Tri-State area, and ultimately internationally.

Connect Savannah: How old were you?

Ricky Skaggs: I was fifteen.

Connect Savannah: Did you learn a lot from Ralph about how to run a band?

Ricky Skaggs: Sure. I was always takin’ notes in my head. Always lookin’ and watchin’. And there were also things that I saw on the road that I didn’t agree with and didn’t want to partake in. But there were things I hoped to carry on, and one of those was the way Ralph featured his band. I think I feature my band in many of the ways he did his. Whether it’s lettin’ my guys sing or perform, I’m not afraid to share the spotlight, and I know that comes from Ralph. But then again, that was the way of old-time entertainment, you know?

Connect Savannah: Do you ever get a hankerin' to step out of the spotlight and just back up some other folks for awhile?

Ricky Skaggs: I believe that any time you honor someone, you’re the one that gets honored somehow. I think when you can lift up others and make them higher than yourself and push them out front, it can’t help but reflect on you in a good way. Many of the guys in my band are all workin’ on albums or already have some out, and I try to let ‘em all do something in the show that’s from their own stuff, and I’m just a backup guy on that song. Now, Carter Stanley would’ve walked off stage and lit up a cigarette! (laughs) And I’ve seen Lester Flatt do the same thing. We don’t take it to that extent, but folks in Savannah will see how we do that when we’re down there.

Connect Savannah: What does the future of bluegrass look like to you?

Ricky Skaggs: I think the future of bluegrass is strong. It’s in the hands of good people. You’ve got folks like Allison Krauss. Now, she’s doin’ her own take on it. It’s not dyed-in-the-wool hardcore, traditional bluegrass, but the respect she has for The Stanleys and older folks like that comes through clearly, and she adds this grace and charm and high quality, high class element to her music. Then you’ve got guys like Sam Bush and John Cowan who’ve split off of New Grass revival. John’s doin’ his thing, and so is Sam. He’s tryin’ to be that Grateful Dead, Phish, jam-band kinda guy – and that certainly has its place in the genre. And then you’ve got guys like Del McCoury, who still pulls from a very traditional vein. But he’s always findin’ new songs, like that one from Richard Thompson. Then myself, I’m tryin’ to educate and teach newcomers as best and as much as I can the story and the history. We’re only as good as the stories that we tell and the history that we can bring forward. That’s really important for me to always honor the elders. You know, I’m fifty years old, and so I think people see me as havin’ my left foot in the past – with Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs and The Stanley Brothers – because I had a real relationship with those guys, and still do with Ralph and Earl and Doc Watson. But my other foot is in the future with Nickel Creek and Allison and Mountain Heart and people I’m tryin’ to bring to my label. That’s the future of bluegrass. To see all the young people that come up to the table after the show with instruments for us to sign lets me know that the future is bright.

Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder play the Trustees Theatre as part of The Savannah Music Festival on Saturday, March 19 at 8 pm.

For tickets call 525-5050 or go to