"This could really be a Ricky Skaggs odyssey," the musician tells Xpress by phone. Skaggs (who started his career as an elementary-schooler when bluegrass legend Bill Monroe called him up on stage and placed his own mandolin around Skaggs' neck) could classify most of his half-century in music as an odyssey. He was still a teen when he was invited to join Ralph Stanley's Clinch Mountain Boys. He's played with J.D. Crowe's New South and Emmylou Harris, and has taken home more than a dozen Grammys. But it's his newest album, Mosaic, due out August 24, that Skaggs calls, "Maybe the most important record I've done in my life."
Amidst rich, warm string tones and earthy, pulsing percussion, a penny whistle rings clear and high as Skaggs sings, "I know that there will be a day / the lord will have me fly away. / Write with chisel when I'm gone / return to sender on my stone." But, despite evident devotional overtures, Skaggs says, "I don't even want to call it a gospel record … I'm calling this more of a sacred album, a spiritual record. It's coming at a time when people really want to hear the truth but they don't want to be preached to. This record is so full of truth."
The Kentucky-based multi-instrumentalist is no stranger to gospel. Salt of the Earth, recorded with The Whites (his wife Sharon's family) in 2007 is filed under both country/bluegrass and Southern gospel. And Skaggs isn’t shy about switching things up. The 1980s saw him performing chart-topping country. Then, during the '90s and 2000s he, with his band Kentucky Thunder, embraced his bluegrass roots.
Mosaic, he says, is "definitely a major departure for me, musically. It's not bluegrass and it's not country. It's something else." And yet, there's familiar ground: Country sounds "harkening back to my songs from the '80s" along with "kind of Beatle-y sounds from the 60s." Yes, Skaggs cut his teeth on the great pickers and fiddlers, but he points out that his older sister was a fan of the fab four, an influence Skaggs picked up by osmosis.
Apparently, providence played a role in Mosaic as well — though record execs did not: Skaggs runs indie-label Skaggs Family Records and says, "I never look at what I should do based on what I've done in the past. I really try to let my heart drive me to make music because if I can make music from the heart, music that matters to me, it will matter to others as well."
Of the new album: "I was feeling inspired to do something a little different. Gordon Kennedy sent me three songs. …I called him and told him, 'Man I love these songs. What would you think of coming along and coproducing this with me? Let me come into your sandbox and play … let's make something really different where my world meets yours.'"
He adds, "I've never had a CD do me like this, but every song could be a video."
Skaggs is the kind of musician who's willing to take risks: A 2007 collaboration with songwriter/pianist Bruce Hornsby included a bluegrass cover of Rick James' "Super Freak." And Skaggs' children, Molly and Luke, both perform with N.C.-based roots/world collective Songs of Water, which recorded much of its recent album, The Sea Has Spoken, at the Skaggs Family studio. "Their heart is to really touch the nations with music," says Skaggs. And, sounding like a proud papa: "My son plays everything from mandolin to sitar. He and Steven Roach [Songs of Water's singer/songwriter] came in and played on Mosaic and did a spontaneous six-to-seven minute worship thing at the end that's just incredible. Steven played a hurdy-gurdy and Luke played a little instrument called the saz."
Skaggs himself seems to have taken a world-music hint for Mosaic: "I'm playing a gut-stringed fretless banjo on some of this stuff that sounds old as can be but it's right in there with modern-day sounding music. Some of the songs have a Middle Eastern twist to it — we're calling it Middle Eastern Kentucky."
But that doesn't mean the musician has crossed more traditional country and bluegrass off his playlist. "As frightful as change is sometimes, it's not like I'll never play 'Uncle Pen' and 'Black Eyed Suzie' and 'Sally Jo' and 'Simple Life' and those things that have been really staples for us in bluegrass for the last 14 years," he says. Look for Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder to work up versions of both new tunes and old favorites on their upcoming tour.
Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: An evening with Ricky Skaggs
where: Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium at Brevard Music Center
where: Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts
when: Thursday, July 29 (7:30 p.m., $20 lawn/$30, $35, $40 orchestra/$100 pit. brevardmusic.org)
when: Skaggs will also perform at the Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts in Franklin. Saturday, August 14 ($35/$45 greatmountainmusic.com)