A lot of big-name artists talk about getting back to their roots. But very few of them have the chance (or the guts) to seriously steer their careers in that direction — and fewer yet enjoy renewed commercial success in the process.
Ricky Skaggs, a bona fide country superstar during the ’80s, is the exception. He went so far as to start his own record label in 1996, releasing four bluegrass records since then with his eight-piece group, Kentucky Thunder.
“It seems like people really want to hear the roots music nowadays,” he said in a recent interview. “Country has gone so far in the other direction that it’s kind of hard to tell what’s country and what’s pop.”
Skaggs first picked up a mandolin at age 5. “My dad showed me three chords … G, C and D,” he recalls. “As far back as I can remember, I’ve been singing and playing. My mother and dad used to tell me I was singing before I could really talk, carrying a tune and mimicking other singers. I guess music’s just what I was supposed to do, and I’ve always tried to do it.”
There was always music playing in the Skaggs’ house when Ricky was young.
“Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers were being played a lot on the radio in eastern Kentucky,” he remembers. “My folks were big fans of theirs, so I had an opportunity to listen to a lot of great rootsy mountain music growing up there. In the early ’60s the Beatles came, and my teenage sister got turned on to them and to James Taylor, so I got a mesh of all kinds of real good music. My sister would be playing some Beatles in one room, and my mom and dad would be playing Bill Monroe in the other.”
Instead of favoring any one musical style over the others, Skaggs let it all in. “My dad really didn’t like rock ‘n’ roll that much,” he admits. “He thought Elvis was a good singer, but their tastes were very traditional, and they liked more of the mountain music — bluegrass. My mother was a tremendous George Jones fan, so we got a lot of that. Listening to WCKY in Cincinnati, Ohio, right across the river from Kentucky, I heard a lot of great music. There were times we couldn’t get WSM in Nashville that well, but we could get WCKY, and they played a little of everything.
“Back in those days radio wasn’t as separated as it is now, where there’s bluegrass on one station and country music on another,” he notes. “You’d hear Bill Monroe and then Patsy Cline, and the Stanley Brothers and then George Jones. It was all great music.”
Skaggs was already a well-regarded player when bluegrass pioneer Bill Stanley took notice of him in 1971. Skaggs played on the influential debut recording of J.D. Crowe & The New South in 1975, and led the band Boone Creek for a short time before beginning his successful country career.
A seven-time Grammy winner, Skaggs has no regrets about his return to his roots as a recognized master of bluegrass and mandolin. “It’s been a great thing personally as well as careerwise,” he explains. “I started out in bluegrass and learned as much as I could learn at the time, and then had an opportunity to work with Emmylou Harris, and I’d worked in three or four other bluegrass groups prior to that. So after taking my knowledge of bluegrass to Emmylou, and then mixing that with the country music I was learning from her, I came to Nashville in 1981 and kind of started my own sound, trying to mix bluegrass and country together.
“I really had a great career in country music. We were still having some hit records until the early ’90s, but New Country started changing so much that we really didn’t have a big career after ’93, ’94. It just seemed like it was the right time to get back to doing real traditional country, bluegrass music — and that’s what we’ve enjoyed now for the last four years.”
Skaggs has been heartened by audience response to Kentucky Thunder’s recent dates with the enormously popular Dixie Chicks.
“It’s been a great opportunity to take the kind of bluegrass music that we play to their audience, a crowd that would go see ‘N Sync or Britney Spears. It’s an awesome responsibility and opportunity to play this music for a brand-new listening group.”
Skaggs plays mostly mandolin during the set, some guitar, and sings lead. “The rest of the guys jump in and sing, and we have a lot of great musicians in the group,” he boasts, referring to fiddlers Bobby Hicks and Luke Bulla, guitarists Paul Brewster, Clay Hess and Darrin Vincent, bassist Mark Fain, and Jim Mills on banjo.
The Skaggs Family Records label was started four years ago. “It was the right thing to do,” he insists. “It’s given me the opportunity to do the kind of music that I want to do without having to sit down with eight or 10 people telling me why bluegrass won’t sell, why it doesn’t work, it doesn’t research well, and all the crazy stuff that labels used to tell us.” There’s little doubt that Skaggs has benefited as a maverick: He’s sold more than 200,000 copies each of Bluegrass Rules! (1997) and Ancient Tones (1999). He released his first gospel project, Soldier of the Cross, in 1999, and his new album on Skaggs Family, Big Mon, is a tribute to Bill Monroe that features Patty Loveless, Dwight Yoakam, Joan Osborne, Lee Ann Womack, Bruce Hornsby and assorted other stars.
The 46-year-old Skaggs says he feels the same thrill when he plays bluegrass now that he did when he was learning it as a child.
“I think it’s actually more,” he says with a smile. “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that I’ve arrived. I’m still learning. But with the knowledge that I have of the music now, it feels a whole lot more comfortable playing this music and having a great group around me. And just seeing the response from people. …
“I’ve had a good career in country music, and to be able to come back and do this now full-time and not look over my shoulder feeling that maybe it wasn’t the right thing — I mean, it’s really all good,” he concludes.