It’s been one of the most unusual yet entirely rational career trajectories in the history of popular music. Most artists do one thing, get hot for a while, crest and then resign themselves to nostalgia tours of their heyday. Ricky Skaggs rode bluegrass to one tier of fame, country to another and then returned to the music that launched him - music that allows him to stay fully alive and relevant. For this crafty undermining of the formula and for his evangelism on behalf of a bluegrass resurgence in the 2000s, Skagss was last year inducted into both the Country Music and Bluegrass Music halls of fame. He’s only the fifth act to achieve that dual honor.
In an interview with WMOT’s The String, posted here, Sakggs said he came to understand with time that a popular hunger for bluegrass music was hovering in the background all along. “I think the knowledge from the past that I had with all my heroes and knowing that even when we were doing country and I’d grab the mandolin and say, ‘Its bluegrass time!’ and go into ‘Uncle Pen’ that country crowd would be out of their seats and dancing in the aisles. I knew there was something electric (acoustic) about bluegrass.”
That led to the 1997 album Bluegrass Rules and a series of releases that pushed sonic boundaries, grounded in where he’d been as a country star. He says: “Producing my records I wanted that mandolin solo to be just as powerful sonically as Ray Flacke’s (electric) guitar or Bruce Bouton’s pedal steel guitar. I wanted those acoustic instruments to sing and have a voice and never be background instruments again, ever.”
In the interview, we talk extensively about the 1970s, when Skaggs joined three bands in succession that each contributed to his growth and to the evolution of roots music. They also made a bridge between his tutelage with Ralph Stanley as vocal partner of his friend Keith Whitley and his first country gig with Emmylou Harris, which in turn opened doors for his solo Nashville career.
The Country Gentlemen, led for decades by vocalist Charlie Waller, was noted for expanding the repertoire of bluegrass songs, drawing on the folk revival and the lyricism of Bob Dylan and Gordon Lightfoot among others. Skaggs joined them as part of a briefly expanded six-piece lineup, playing fiddle and making one album for Vanguard Records.
J.D. Crowe and the New South was fronted by the most important banjo playing band leader other than Earl Scruggs in bluegrass history. This took Skaggs to a Holiday Inn in Lexington, KY for a highly consequential residency: “As soon as I got there we were working I’m pretty sure five or six nights a week and four shows a night from 7:30 to midnight. I’m telling you that was a lot of playing - a lot of music. It was quite a thing. I made friends with one of the waitresses. She’d come up while we was playing and she’d say somebody wants to buy you a drink. What do you want? And I’d say I don’t drink! Just charge them and bring it to me without the liquor! So I’d give her a really good tip.”
The chemistry and personnel from this stretch, with Tony Rice on guitar and Jerry Douglas on dobro, led to the titular album J.D. Crowe And The New South, a record on Rounder so beloved and influential it’s known on bluegrass circles as 0044, it’s catalog number.
Then Skaggs and Douglas formed their own quartet called Boone Creek, which released two albums that further liberated bluegrass musicians worldwide to put personal spin on the template laid down by Bill Monroe in the 40s. Though short-lived, each of these groupings helped make bluegrass a robust and adventuresome genre that would draw Skaggs back in the 1990s.
Today, more than ever, Ricky gets invited to play dual sets, and he’s been enjoying that he told us: “This band Kentucky THunder can certainly play both. I bring a drummer and a piano player and a steel guitar player when we play country shows. We want them to hear the real country sounds that we did in the 80s and early 90s.”
Those shows, he says, draw on audiences who’ve followed him through all three phases of his career - bluegrass - country and bluegrass again. And it leads to many meaningful visits at the merch table long after the shows.
“And maybe it’s just because I’m getting older that I’m realizing the impact that the years of music has had on people that want to talk about that now.”
Skaggs hasn’t released new music since a 2014 duo album with wife Sharon White, but he’s as busy as ever, with upcoming appearances at both the CMA Music Festival and Bonnaroo. And on Saturday June 6 at noon he’ll be part of an all-star panel discussion at the CMHOF about his late friend and collaborator Keith Whitley. Find out more about that special event HERE.