By the ripe old age of ten, Ricky was one of the rare musicians to have performed with the artists considered the triumvirate of bluegrass...Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers. 'I met Bill Monroe when I was six and played onstage with him by request of someone in the audience. That was the first installment into my life of music...I got infected that night. Read more...
By the time I was ten, I had played on stage with my heroes...Bill when I was six, the Flatt & Scruggs television show when I was seven, and a couple of shows with the Stanley Brothers. Carter was very encouraging. He told my dad that someday I'd come out of the back seat into the front seat...almost like he was prophesizing. My mind didn't understand at the time, but my heart and spirit absorbed those things. Not that I feel like I'm in the front seat now, but I'm able to drive where I want to go!'
Ricky later became a member of Ralph Stanley's Clinch Mountain Boys in 1971. Joining him was another young talent. 'Keith Whitley and I met when I was fifteen. My dad and I were playing a show and I saw this young guy my age...somehow we ended up in the basement of the school. It was just one of those meant-to be-moments. We started talking about everything and realized we both adored the Stanley Brothers. I asked if he knew a certain song...he started singing the lead and I sang the tenor. For the next three years we were inseparable.' The pair later came to Ralph's attention when Ricky and Whitley entertained a crowd waiting for the delayed Clinch Mountain Boys after the band's bus broke down enroute to the gig. Ralph was so impressed by the duo's rendition of Stanley Brothers' material that he asked them to perform again during the Clinch Mountain Boys break. It wasn't long afterwards that both young talents were a part of Ralph's band. 'I was sixteen when I graduated from high school and started working for Ralph full-time...Keith came about two weeks later. We worked with Ralph for two years solid. It was one of the greatest learning experiences in the world. Imagine if you were a mathematician or a physicist...it would be like getting the chance to sit with Einstein learning everything he'd have to teach.' During this period Ricky and Whitley also recorded A Tribute to the Stanley Brothers and Second Generation Bluegrass showcasing the gifted young pair as artists with connections to both the past and future. Tragically, Keith Whitley's life was cut short at the height of his career by alcohol poisoning in 1989.
As a young adult, despite his hardcore roots, Ricky was not immunized against the stylistic sea of changes sweeping bluegrass in the seventies. Quite to the contrary, his musical curiosity led him smack into the middle of the progressive bluegrass scene. 1975 brought J.D. Crowe and the New South, one of the most influential bluegrass records ever made. Crowe's extraordinary line-up for his New South's Rounder debut included Ricky, Tony Rice and Jerry Douglas, with whom Ricky had also recorded with in the Country Gentlemen. The Skaggs and Douglas partnership continued with the formation of Boone Creek, another effort that proved crucial in the development of bluegrass as we know it today. 'Boone Creek was a very cutting age, very new sounding band. We probably influenced a lot of groups like Alison Krauss and Union Station, IIIrd Tyme Out and Lonesome River Band. We only were a group for two years and did a couple of albums...and a lot bootleg tapes were out there. Jerry has influenced so many Dobro players, as well as Wes Goldin's style of singing...and just the sound with electric bass. I would have actually preferred upright bass, but the guy we hired just didn't come and so we were forced to hire the electric bass player...it gave us a progressive and different sound.'
His contacts within musical circles ultimately led to a much more important relationship, that with his wife Sharon of the Whites. 'Keith and I met Sharon and Cheryl when we were sixteen years old in Texas. We had just finished our show with Ralph, and I had gone to the bus to change into my record selling clothes. When I was walking from the bus to the record table I heard this voice. It just arrested me...it was so pure and so good. Then I heard these harmonies. I didn't want to miss what I was hearing, so I started running. It was Sharon and she was singing like an angel. Her mom and dad were singing with her and Cheryl was playing bass. From there, we struck up friendships with one another.' Their camaraderie continued through the decade, and Ricky performed with Buck White and the Down Home Folks in 1980. 'It was a real friendship. I don't know how in the world we ended up together. Our marriages dissolved and I guess because we were such close friends, knew each other musically and knew that's what consumed both of us, we felt safe around each other. Here we are nineteen years and two children later...a lot of great memories and a lot left to make.'
During the late seventies Ricky began his foray into country music, touring and recording with Emmylou Harris. When Rodney Crowell decided to leave Emmylou's Hot Band, Ricky was offered a permanent position in the group. 'I had been doing a lot of recording and a few live shows with Emmylou. When Rodney started his solo career, they called and Emmylou offered me a great deal. I could play mandolin, fiddle, guitar and banjo, and sing harmony...that was too cool. Plus, my learning sponge was getting dry and I was ready to start soaking up some new stuff. There was just every reason in the world to go. Working with her for those two and a half years gave me the opportunity to cut my first solo album for Sugar Hill Records. I wanted to take from my bluegrass days and blend it what I was learning from Emmylou. That's how Sweet Temptation came about. 'Could You Love Me One More Time' and 'I'll Take the Blame' both got a lot of airplay.' The success of Sweet Temptation presented Ricky with his own temptation...to take the plunge and market his music to a major label. The positive reaction to his first solo efforts proved an audience existed for this synthesis of country and bluegrass...the problem was reaching that audience. 'I ended up getting a deal with Epic. Country music at that time was so urban cowboy...all very, very pop. It was the perfect time for someone to come back and re-establish the roots of country music. It wasn't that I was leaving bluegrass...how can you change a leopard's spots? I took my knowledge of bluegrass, and the knowledge I learned with Emmylou and tried to bring it out on a major label.'
Although confident of his viability in Nashville, no one could have predicted the enormous success Ricky would find throughout the next decade. The 1981 release of Waitin' for the Sun to Shine catapulted him to the top of the country charts, where he could be found for the remainder of the decade. His dedication to the preservation and continuance of roots-country and bluegrass made him the defacto leader of the neo-traditionalist movement. Much as it is today, when Ricky went to Nashville the airwaves of commercial country radio were clogged with slick pop arrangements and urban cowboy wannabes. Although humility would make him scoff at the notion, none other than Chet Atkins credited Ricky with 'single-handedly' saving country music. The accolades continued to pour in, both in the form of Number One hits and awards. Billboard Magazine placed Ricky both in the Top 20 artists of the decade and Top 100 of the past fifty years. He has been the proud recipient of eight Country Music Association awards, four Grammys and dozens of other honors. Yet more than the praise of his fans and peers, Ricky is proud that he garnered such popularity while retaining the elements of music he always held dear, especially his bluegrass roots. 'Most of the hits we had were bluegrass. 'Highway 40 Blues,' 'Crying My Heart Out Over You,' 'Don't Cheat In Our Hometown,' 'Uncle Pen'... all of those songs were number one records yet they were all bluegrass songs before that. We were making a big stand for bluegrass.' During his days in country music Ricky would often quiz his audience, asking 'How many of you folks ever heard of the Stanley Brothers?' Normally a few people might applaud. Then he would tell the audience if they wanted to hear some real high lonesome bluegrass music, to go get some Stanley Brothers, usually naming three or four recommended records. One can only wonder how many people Ricky might have sold on bluegrass on a typical night.
After years on top, Ricky found himself on the outside of the pop country wave that swept Nashville in the nineties. 'The fact that I was making quality traditional country music just wasn't cutting it on country radio. There was a culmination of many things coming to a head at the same time. I did a song once called 'Life's Too Long to Live like This.' I realized life is too long to be contractually under the thumb to produce something commercial. I just wouldn't bow my knee to the god of country radio. I'm either going to play the music I want to play for the rest of my life, or I'm not going to play at all.' His wishes came true in 1997 with the release of Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder's Bluegrass Rules!. The warm welcome that has been offered to this prodigal son of bluegrass has only served to tighten the bond existing between Ricky and his fans. In return, his devotion to the proliferation and preservation of bluegrass is stronger than ever. 'That's really what got us back...the open arms of the bluegrass community. We lost Bill Monroe who was my musical father, and then my blood father passed away. These were among the things that brought me back to bluegrass. The contract I had with Atlantic was unlike Sony, which prohibited me from doing anything other than commercial country music. With Atlantic, I had the right to record bluegrass, instrumentals, and Christmas albums...whatever I wanted. We gave Atlantic first right of refusal, and they didn't want the record. So when we went in to record Bluegrass Rules!, we paid for everything ourselves: musicians, studio time, art, all of it. The next I knew, the thing was finished and it was MINE...that was the first time I'd ever owned anything musical in my life.'
Ancient Tones, the second bluegrass release by Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder concentrates on well-known classics and songs recalling the sounds of past traditions. The magic they create rekindles the fire and strength found in the music borne out of the hills of Virginia and the coal mining country of Eastern Kentucky. More importantly, Ricky recreates the material with a fresh vitality that captures the hearts of audiences young and old. Kentucky Thunder's approach is to create bluegrass that, as Bill Monroe once stated, 'brings out the old tones...ancient tones.' As Ricky explains, 'It's important to always keep the integrity of the song and not do a whacked-out version if it destroys the heart and spirit of the song. It's a double-edged sword...it can cut either way you go. You want to keep the integrity of the song, yet do it in a way that people today will listen to it. There is real depth to this music. You can't hear these old songs by just listening with your ears. You have to open your heart and your spirit to hear these sounds. They're just as fresh today as they were fifty years ago, but you have to hear them with your heart...if you listen with just your ears you'll miss it. When you feel the hair standing up on the back of your neck, you know you're connecting to the song. You're just so moved by it. When I hear this music, it's spiritual to me.'
While no one denied the brilliance of Bluegrass Rules! and its' much-heralded follow-up Ancient Tones, Ricky has not been immune to skepticism. Of course, actions speak louder than words. His recent efforts, not only with Kentucky Thunder but also through the creation of two record labels, Skaggs Family Records and Ceili Music, demonstrate his commitment to the bluegrass genre. 'Having completed our third album with 'Soldier of the Cross,' I think people realize we're here to stay. We started two record labels, bought the Oak Ridge Boys studio and offices, and moved from Nashville to Hendersonville where I live. We've invested a lot of money into a state-of-the-art vintage recording studio, where we can record this kind of music with the old ribbon mics and tube gear that really matches the sound of the music. We're so happy to be back playing and seeing the response to the music. It's just wonderful.' Judging from the response of fans, and numerous International Bluegrass Music Association awards Kentucky Thunder has received, the feeling of joy is mutual.
Today, Ricky sees his own role not just as a performer but as an educator. The recognition and respect he garnered throughout his career provides opportunities to present his beloved bluegrass to a mass audience. Tour dates opening for the Dixie Chicks and numerous television appearances have initiated countless new ears to the rich, ancient tones of bluegrass. Big Mon is the title of the latest release from Skaggs Family Records, featuring artists from across the musical landscape coming together to pay homage to the man and his music. 'My hope is to educate more people about Monroe's music and bring it to a wider audience. I wanted it to appeal to a different market...the Hornsby crowd, John Fogerty's and the Dixie Chicks' fans. Of course, I hope the traditional bluegrass community will accept it also, but that's not the market it was necessarily intended for.' Ricky and the others who contributed to the project hope it provides the impetus for bluegrass novices to seek out the originals. He works tirelessly to promote bluegrass around the world and help his fledgling label's artists present a worthy product. His experience within the music industry allows him to be a mentor for young artists under the Ceili Records umbrella, while helping quality acts such as the Del McCoury Band earn a better living with their craft than possible in the past. No one can argue that any other artist is in a better position to be an emissary for bluegrass. Blessed by God with a loving family, prodigious talent, a wealth of musical experience, Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder are showing the world that 'Country Rocks, but Bluegrass Rules!'
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