No single artist has done more since 1980 to shape the course of country and bluegrass music than Ricky Skaggs, the dynamic tenor from Kentucky. Skaggs’s virtuoso musicianship and firm belief in the power of traditional mountain music brought Nashville’s slide into country-pop to a screeching halt, paving the way to stardom for a new wave of young traditionalists in a score of styles. With numerous awards, twelve Number-One singles, and a platinum record under his belt, Skaggs rests comfortably at the pinnacle of country and bluegrass stardom.
“Without the pioneering work of Ricky Skaggs, there probably wouldn’t be any new country or new traditionalist music,” wrote Andrew Vaughan in Who’s Who in New Country. “Before George Strait was popular, before Reba McEntire was a superstar, before The Judds captured hearts with their mountain harmonies, Skaggs was breaking through country music’s lowest ebb. The late seventies and early eighties had seen country go pop . . . . But Skaggs re-introduced the backwoods sound and with an impeccably tight band and clear, snappy bluegrass-influenced productions, his records and live shows came like a breath of fresh air through a stagnant Nashville smog.”
Skaggs was certainly the ideal candidate to rescue country from the brink of blandness. He was - and is - enormously talented and ambitious, with a youthful determination to make a name for himself without sacrificing his artistic ideals. “I’m as country as corn bread,” he told People magazine. “I don’t think I could go pop if I had a mouthful of firecrackers.”
Skaggs was playing professionally at a time when most youngsters are learning to read. He was born on July 18, 1954, in Cordell, Kentucky, and raised in Lawrence County, Kentucky, the son of amateur country and gospel musicians. By the time Skaggs was three he was singing with his parents at social gatherings in his home county, and by the tender age of five he could play mandolin well enough to do it onstage. Remembering those years, Skaggs told The Big Book of Bluegrass: “Me and my mom would do a lot of duets, and my dad would sing baritone or bass, so we would have lead and tenor and bass, and it would sound real haunting and neat. We used to work a lot of churches, and we played in high schools and at pie suppers and theaters and stuff.”
Skaggs’s heroes in the music business were the Stanley Brothers - Ralph and Carter - who were prominent bluegrass musicians. While still in his early teens, Skaggs perfected his singing and picking until it mirrored Carter Stanley’s to an astonishing degree. He also learned to play other instruments, including the fiddle and guitar. The constant round of local engagements led to a friendship with another young would-be bluegrass musician, Keith Whitley. The two pickers formed their own trio (with Whitley’s brother on banjo) and were soon playing radio shows on WLKS in West Liberty, Kentucky.
One night Skaggs and Whitley traveled to West Virginia to hear Ralph Stanley give a concert. Stanley was late for the engagement, so the owner of the club asked the two to perform until Stanley arrived. Skaggs remembered: “So we got up and entertained the crowd, and they were liking it - and in walks Ralph Stanley, my hero. We were singing ‘Little Glass of Wine’ or something like that. He set his banjo case down on the barstool and I glanced over at him out of the corner of my eye. He wasn’t really smiling, he was looking off somewhere like he was reminiscing, in a way. It turned out that he was. Afterward he said, ‘Boys, the first time I saw y’all it just brought back so many memories of me and Carter.’“
Stanley was so impressed with Skaggs and Whitley that he asked them to join his band, the Clinch Mountain Boys. Skaggs was fifteen at the time, so he had to restrict his work to holidays and summers, but he became a phenomenon nonetheless. Ralph Stanley recruited Skaggs initially because the youngster could play and sing so much like the late Carter Stanley, but as Skaggs learned the ropes of bluegrass musicianship, his own formidable talents began to surface. Skaggs played with the Clinch Mountain Boys for two years, from 1970 until 1972. “It was a good training ground,” he said, “and I learned a lot of things about feel and music - I learned what not to play . . . . Those were really great days.”
Unfortunately, the earnings for bluegrass musicians were meager, and in 1972 Skaggs “retired” and took a job as a boiler repairman for a Washington, D.C.-area power company. He hated the work, so he was only too glad to return to music as a member of the Country Gentlemen in 1973. In that bluegrass band he played fiddle and sang high tenor. By the time he quit the Country Gentlemen some two years later (around the time he turned 20), Skaggs had a considerable reputation and was sought after by a number of groups. He cut a solo album for Rebel Records, That’s It, and then joined another band, J. D. Crowe and the New South.
The New South was a progressive bluegrass band in which pickers were encouraged to experiment with any manner of jazz, rock, and country influences. If Skaggs needed any final polish on his talents - a debatable point - he found it in this eclectic group. After touring with the New South for a year, Skaggs formed his own group, Boone Creek. The band, which for a time included Vince Gill on bass, cut two albums before breaking up in 1978.
Skaggs had become friends with Emmylou Harris while he was still working with the Country Gentlemen and she was singing in bars in Washington, D.C. In 1978 Harris asked Skaggs to join her band and help her with her first album. Even though he was yearning to break through as a solo artist at the time, Skaggs offered his vocal and instrumental services to Harris and steered her toward the old-time sound that so suited her voice. Skaggs sang and played on several of Harris’s early albums, most notably the Grammy Award-winning Roses in the Snow.
The network of friendships Skaggs had forged finally proved to be the catalyst for his successful solo career. In 1980 he released an acoustic album, Sweet Temptation, that earned favorable reviews, and in 1982 he earned his first major label contract with Epic Records. Skaggs’s first album with Epic, Waitin’ for the Sun to Shine, was a breakthrough both for him and for bluegrass-influenced country music in general. The album yielded two Number-One hits, “Crying My Heart Out Over You” and “I Don’t Care”, and gold record sales.
Skaggs’s success was accomplished without stylistic compromise. His albums featured acoustic instruments and tight bluegrass harmonies, and he recorded such bluegrass classics as “Children Go Where I Send Thee” and “Uncle Pen”. In his book Country Music U.S.A., Bill C. Malone analyzed the many reasons for Skaggs’s popularity. “Skaggs is blessed with the clearest and most expressive tenor voice that has been heard in country music since Ira Louvin, and his instrumental virtuosity is breathtaking,” Malone observed. “Skaggs has been hailed as a traditionalist, and he still refers to his music as ‘bluegrass’ and openly speaks of building a repertory that will appeal to hard-core country fans . . . . But, of course, he is not purely a traditionalist, even though he does traditional material beautifully. His music is informed by the wide range of music that he and other young people have heard and played in today’s world - and by the experiences of living in a society vastly different from that of their parents.”
Including Waiting for the Sun to Shine, Skaggs’s releases during the 1980s spurred a new popularity for traditional country music and earned him popular success. Highways & Heartaches, released in 1982, was a greater popular hit, landing at number one on the country charts and generating three Number-One hits. According to Al Campbell of All Music Guide, Skaggs developed his bluegrass roots “with new traditionalist sensibilities and catchy pop tunes” on the album. Highways went platinum in 1992. Other 1980s releases included Don’t Cheat in Our Home Town, Country Boy, and Live in London, all of which earned gold sales certification.
With 1995’s Solid Ground, Skaggs moved from Epic to Atlantic Records. “The songs themselves are real fresh and different. I think they have some real truth to them. It’s a country album. For any country listener, I think they’ll enjoy this record . . . ,” Skaggs told Deborah Evans Price in Billboard following the album’s release. Though signed to Atlantic Nashville for country album releases, Skaggs released his first record made on his own in 1997. Bluegrass Rules!, released on the Skaggs Family label, marked a pointed return to Skaggs’s bluegrass roots. “Even though these are old songs,” Skaggs told Chet Flippo in Billboard, “we tried to honor Mr. [Bill] Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, and Ralph Stanley . . . . I just wanted to honor these pioneers and let people know what these architects of the music did.” To help further the exposure of bluegrass and roots music, in 1998 Skaggs formed a sister label to Skaggs Family Records called Ceili Records, which is committed to releasing the work of artists in those genres. Skaggs released Ancient Tones in 1999, an album Michael B. Smith of All Music Guide called “a collection of some of the finest classic bluegrass tracks ever compiled on a single disc.” Also released in 1999, Soldier of the Cross is a collection of gospel songs.
In 2001 Skaggs released History of the Future, which, like Bluegrass Rules! and Ancient Tones, “lovingly embrace[d] his musical history with only the subtlest hints of commercial country,” according to Scott Cooper in Sing Out! As Skaggs phrased it, according to Billboard, he had his “left foot in the past and the right in the future” on the album. Sings the Songs of Bill Monroe, a tribute album to bluegrass legend Bill Monroe, was released in 2002, and Skaggs’s second live album, Live at the Charleston Music Hall, was released in 2003 on the Skaggs Family label.
About the resurgent popularity of bluegrass and Skaggs’s own part in encouraging the renewed interest, he told Cooper: “I really think we have done a lot to legitimize the music. I wouldn’t want bluegrass fans to think that I think that we have saved it or anything. It didn’t need saving. I feel like we brought a lot of credibility to it.”
In addition to his own solo work, Skaggs has worked as a producer and songwriter, and has developed new bluegrass groups including Daybreak, Old School Freight Train, and Blue Moon Rising.
With his latest – Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby - Virginia cool meets Kentucky thunder in a collaboration between genre-bending pianist Bruce Hornsby and multi-instrumental virtuoso Ricky Skaggs that expands the terrain of bluegrass. Highlights include a meditative, minor-key transformation of Hornsby’s “Mandolin Rain” (with Skaggs on the title instrument) and a down-home revival of “A Night on the Town”, though newer originals such as “The Dreaded Spoon” seem slight in comparison. The traditional “Across the Rocky Mountain” and original instrumental “Stubb” shift the spotlight to Skaggs, though Hornsby’s sophisticated chord progressions fit fine within the backing of Skaggs’s Kentucky Thunder band. Guests include Jerry Douglas and Stuart Duncan, with John Anderson contributing vocals to a wild-card rendition of Rick James’s “Super Freak”, which provides the closing bluegrass hoedown.