With the announcement of his induction to the Country Music Hall of Fame on Tuesday, Ricky Skaggs has become one of a small handful of artists so recognized who’ve made historic marks on both country and bluegrass music.
The 63-year-old singer and multi-instrumentalist has become a patriarch of today’s bluegrass scene. Some of the younger fans hearing his band Kentucky Thunder at the nation’s top festivals may not know that in the 1980s, Skaggs was a giant on country radio, with a run of hits that included “Highway 40 Blues,” “Heartbroke” and “Country Boy,” a bluegrass/country hybrid whose music video featured Bill Monroe.
If any country star can claim original bluegrass roots, it’s Skaggs. The Cordell, Kentucky native performed with Flatt & Scruggs and Bill Monroe before his eighth birthday. He and his boyhood friend Keith Whitley toured as band members of pioneer Ralph Stanley in the 70s.
Then after moving to Nashville about 1980 to pursue a solo country career, he scored 12 No. 1 hits and was named CMA Entertainer of the Year in 1985. His string-band emphasis and mountain-style vocals helped place him in the vanguard of a new traditionalist movement in country that would inspire and spawn Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam. After his radio career slowed, Skaggs turned decisively back to bluegrass as an artist and advocate with the 1997 album Bluegrass Rules.
Garth Brooks announced the Skaggs induction by noting his musicianship and his reverence for the story of bluegrass.
“In the 1990s he made a promise to Bill Monroe, as the father of bluegrass music was nearing the end of his life, that he would help keep the flame of the music he’d created alive.”
An emotional Skaggs picked up the theme in his acceptance speech.
“We honor the fathers and we honor the elders of the music. And just thinking about all of the people who are in this hallowed room here, we’re still standing on their shoulders.”
Also inducted for 2018 are the influential singer and songwriter Dottie West and star western swing fiddler Johnny Gimble. West led a life of dramatic challenges and changes as she became one of the most iconic and self-possessed female country stars of the 60s, 70s and 80s. She was mentored by Patsy Cline, consorted and wrote with the best songwriters in Nashville and achieved huge chart success on her own and in a string of duets with Kenny Rogers. Her death from injuries sustained in a car accident in 1991 was a major country music tragedy.
Johnny Gimble, a life-long Texan, performed or recorded with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys (resulting in Gimble's induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame), Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Ray Price and others. He won two Grammy Awards and was named CMA Instrumentalist of the Year five times. He died in 2001 after several strokes.