Golden Graham talks with the stars of country music

Bluegrass Rules - Interview with 

Ricky Skaggs 

By Graham Lees


Ricky Skaggs started his career with the Stanley brothers when he and lifetime friend Keith Whitley were invited to join the band in 1970. At the age of five Ricky had played ‘Ruby’ on stage at one of Bill Monroe’s concerts and at seven played mandolin on Flatt and Scruggs television show.

Skaggs played with the modern bluegrass band J.D. Crowe And The New south in the mid 70s, formed his own band Boon Creek and was band leader for Emmylou Harris from 1977 – 80. He has been voted both the Horizon and Male Vocalist Awards in 1982 and Entertainer Of The Year in 1985 by the CMA.

Ricky Skaggs came to London over Easter 2000, as part of the BBC Radio 2 Festival at London Arena.  I had the opportunity to talk to him in the March.

Hi Ricky how are things with you.

“Alright, had my coffee and getting the day started pretty good.”

Yeah, we need the coffee first thing in the morning. Thanks for taking the time to call me, it’s a pleasure to get the opportunity to talk to you and I’m looking forward to seeing you at the show in London?  

“Yeah, what’s everybody thinking about that concert over there.”  

It’s generating a lot of interest, we haven’t had a big concert like this for some years.

“It ought to be a good show, you should be able to get a little bit of everything.”

Good! You have two great bluegrass albums due for release in the UK and have some great musicians in the form of Kentucky Thunder. How long have they been with you?

“Well that’s been the name of my band since the album Kentucky Thunder came out back in 88/89 on CBS/Epic label…it was a country album. At that time we had won so many awards and I didn’t have a name for the band, it was just called the Ricky Skaggs band. We had won a bunch of awards for touring band of the year, because I always had a great band with me. When I make good records I always try to have a good band so that we can play the music like the records were, so the people got their monies worth. About three, three and half years ago Mr Monroe passed away and my father passed away. There was just a feeling that country music had passed away, you know, the kind of country music that you and I both love and a lot of people here in the States really lost traditional country music. It’s almost as if there has been a death, because traditional country music as we grew up knowing it and as we love, people like George Jones and Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, can’t even get a record deal today.”

We’ve heard this.

“It’s just a sad state of affairs. The kind of country music that I was playing, that really enjoyed doing, I did two albums for Atlantic, one called Solid Ground and one called Life Is A Journey. Neither one of those albums did very well over here, because they were very traditional. Ricky Skaggs type country music, which was laced with some bluegrass overtones and the acoustics. So we just decided that the best thing for us to do was ask Rick Whiteburn who was at Atlantic at the time, if I could get off the label and be released. So they released me and I was able to do a bluegrass album. I really wanted to come back and play bluegrass again. That’s what’s in my heart!”

That is where you started with Ralph Stanley.

“Yeah, it is, that was my roots and the foundation of everything I’ve ever done. My dad had wanted me to do a bluegrass album and a gospel album. I had never had the chance to do those two things while he was alive. That kinda weighed heavy on me as well. So, as soon as I got the opportunity, the first thing I wanted to do was a bluegrass album, then later on we have done a gospel album. I don’t think you all have that over there yet.”

I haven’t seen it.

“Soldier Of The Cross. It’s a great record, it’s bluegrass and has a lot of great harmonies. Some new songs on it as well as some old ones. Bluegrass Rules was our first effort to come out and of course what we have done with Ancient Tones the follow up, both are Grammy Award winning records. 

I believe so, I have just reviewed them both!

“So it just seems to be the right place for me to be. We started Skaggs Family Records and it’s really the right thing and just feels so right to do. We are signing some different groups. We have Del McCoury on our label and the Whites have just recently done a record for us and will be out sometime in the summer…Jerry Douglas produced that. We have done a record with Vassar Clements and some fun things that we just want to do, but some things that I think make musical sense as well. You know we are not looking to sell 500,000 albums per person, we’re hoping just to do records that we can put out into the stores as well as the internet and be able to do something to promote this kind of music. It seems as though from the fan base, that there is a real return back to roots. Because with the new sounds of country music, I think Nashville would probably even try to drop the name Country Music if they could.”

I believe so. In fact Trevor Dann, Head of BBC Music Entertainment, wrote in CMA’s monthly Close UP magazine .… “You’ve taken the ‘& Western’ out of Country & Western – now it’s time for Country to go too.”

“Right! I think they would if they could, they know that the name country music is so big and so popular, that it would shoot them in the foot if they did (laughs). Like I said it’s a sad state of affairs for the ones who really love it. You know there’s a huge song going round that Larry Cordel wrote, called ‘Murder On Music Row’.”

I have it on George Strait’s new album.

“Yeah, George and Alan Jackson just recorded that and there again I think some record stations will try to kill that record before it has time to get to the ears of the public.”

Is it getting aired.

“It’s getting aired, yes. There are a lot of radio stations playing it over here and people are ringing in requesting it. I’m sure it will probably be on the CMA this year. It will probably be something that George & Alan will want to do together on the CMA show. It’s a big record and I think it makes a tremendous statement out there, because there has been a murder and someone did it and someone got away clean, there were no traces and left no fingerprints, but it hit the heart and soul of country music.”

When I’ve spoken to American artistes in the past, they have said that the people who hold the purse strings in Nashville, don’t like country music and it’s a sad state of affairs when they’re running the asylum.

“Yes, I’m just amazed. If they don’t like country music they ought to produce something else. They ought to go somewhere else, let us make the kinda music that we want to make and I’ll tell you….we are setting a pattern for a whole lot of people in Nashville. Just coming out of the mainstream business there and starting our own label, is really opening the eyes of a whole lot of people. The record labels are watching us and a lot of the artistes are as well. We’ve come into this thing with very very little debt. We don’t owe are souls to the bank, we are paying our way as we go. Which is very important to me, because biblically even, I don’t want to be into the debtor. So we are trying to do it the right way and the fans want to hear the music, so we know there is a market out there for it. Of course radio are not doing a whole lot to help us, because they are still trying to keep their share of the market and they’re all afraid, everybody’s afraid of each other. There is just this fear going around, so if you operate in fear there’s no faith and you have no faith to try anything radical. So for us to do something radical like we did, to just walk away from a country music career. To walk back to something that the world would look at, or the business here in Nashville would look at and think was so petty and so insignificant, a small thing like bluegrass. To see it go straight to the top and win two Grammy Awards has really caused people to look and say wait he might be on to something. You know we are just doing what is in our hearts, we haven’t come up with some great strategy you know! We are just doing what’s in our hearts for the people to follow.”

Steve Earle and Del McCoury Band had a great album with the Mountain. They made a great impression on people here when they toured last year.

“Well that’s really great, because I think this as a perfect opportunity for us, because we are not getting rich to come over and do it, which to me still doesn’t matter, because we are OK we are doing well financially now. To be able to come over and play right before Reba comes out, because by then they will have heard some pretty good sized bands playing lots of different sounds, a lot of different styles of music. For us to walk out with all acoustic instruments and play heart and soul Appellation, Kentucky music that has the Celtic sounds, the sounds of home for England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. To have those Celtic roots and those English and Welsh sounds, I think people are going to be really really impressed. I’m hoping that they will be impressed by just the musicianship. My band is such a great band and these guys play so good, I hope that they will be impressed by just the sounds of the music and will be something that will satisfy a hungry ear.”

Well I hope so. We have just come back from the North Wales Country Music Festival and they had the Acme bluegrass band on last night and received the best applause of the weekend.

“Well that’s just wonderful Graham, are they a local group?”

They come from the south of England.

“I hope I can get the chance to meet them and encourage them to keep going for it. That is one of the things that we have in our heart. To encourage other young musicians that have the gift and talent to play acoustic music, because they can get so disappointed sometimes when they don’t have the big sales like the other big groups or electric groups do. We just want to encourage people to hang in with it. If it is in your heart, if it is a passion, then the passion over-rides the desire to make big bucks. Passion is a thing that will sustain you through the hard times, because it really has with me.”

You always see the light at the end of the tunnel when you have passion.

“That’s right, when you’ve got passion you see it. No matter what comes your way, passion will drive you over the next wall.”

I know that you had a lot of encouragement as a lad. When you were around five years old, Bill Monroe let you play his mandolin on stage, how did that feel to a small boy?

“(Laugh) Yeah I think I was about five or six and I went to see Mr Monroe that night in Kentucky. The people in the audience had kinda seen me playing and singing at the local grocery store, or at church, or the post office, or somewhere I might of landed playing just for fun. So they asked Mr Monroe if he would let little Ricky Skaggs get up and sing. Finally after enough requests, to calm the audience down he said well where is he at. So he let me get up and play and I didn’t have a mandolin with me. So he took his ‘sward’ you know and like he handed it to me right there on the spot. I’ve looked back at that in career and my life and I feel that really was a passing. It was the first instalment on the passing of a torch, or the passing of a mantle. It really has been and I guess you can get really melodramatic, but just know in my heart and I know how God does something’s sometimes. It kinda surpasses our understanding, but I look back at it now and I see the relationship he and I had during the last ten years of his life and it was almost like a father to a son. Even though it wasn’t like that, yet in a deep sense it was because I felt like he knew somehow that I appreciated his music, that I always tried to lift him up and lift his name up. I always like to play his music and keep digging and expanding it as well. So we are doing this great tribute right now. We are doing this album to be called Big Mon, that was his nickname and we’ve got this first album Volume 1 that will come out this year. We have just a tremendous amount of artistes who have come on board to be a part of that. John Foggarty, the Dixie Chicks, Steve Wariner, Travis Tritt, Dolly Parton, Bruce Hornsby, John Osborne and on and on, just people who love Mr Monroe’s music, have come on to be a part of this. We’re just really really excited about it, it’s just going to make a larger statement that this music is worthy. That this music has honour, is worth spending time and really making wonderful.”

I believe that you used to play an old Martin D28 guitar, do you still play it in your show.

“Now we are playing these Dana Bourgeois guitars made in Main. I’m playing mandolin pretty much full time now and as a matter of fact, I think I might have sold that guitar that I used to play a lot, but I’ve got a few of them left. I had a lot of instruments that I just wasn’t using, so I traded them in to get an older Gibson F style mandolin.”

So the mandolin is more or less is your favourite instrument.  

“Well it was my first one and that was what I started out on. I’ve always felt very comfortable playing that and I feel that I have an understanding of the mandolin, that I don’t have perhaps with the guitar or something else. The mandolin and fiddle have been something that I’ve been very close to and I don’t play a lot of fiddle any more, but I still play the fiddle and try to learn new tunes and everything, but I still love to play the mandolin and is my favourite instrument.”

Going back to your two albums. Bluegrass Rules tends to lean towards songs the Stanley Brothers have written and the more recent  “Ancient Tones” leans a little more towards Bill Monroe, why did you choose these tracks.

“Well in my early up-bringing Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe were my heroes I guess. They were the people I listened to the most. Musically my older sister was listening to the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Dave Clarke Five and the Hollies, so I got this mash, this blending of all kinds of music in my home, because my mom and dad were listening to Jimmy Rogers. My dad was a great fan of Jimmy Rogers the Singing Brakeman and of course my mother loved gospel, so we listened to a lot of that. So there was always music going on in our home. As I said my sister was very much turned on by the Beetles, but when I heard the Beetles music, there was something that still sounded at home. The music itself was fresh and different and when I heard the harmonies, the singing, it was like the Everly’s, the Louvin Brothers, it was those harmonies between John & Paul. I could tell that they had really got a lot of influence from these guys here in Nashville and the mountains here. I knew that those boys had listened to a lot of old-time mountain type music, or early country music. You could hear the blend in their music.”

Do you have a favourite album or track that you have recorded.

“Well, ‘Get Up John’ and ‘Little Maggie’ on Bluegrass Rules. That is some of the best music I think I have got to participate on. There was something happening on ‘Little Maggie’ that just had that special one-take, just magic kind of thing. The same with ‘Get Up John’. There was a fire in that, that just can’t be put out. I don’t care how big a record label can be and I don’t care how much opposition we are going to have. That flame that’s in that song will never be put out.”

Do you have a particular favourite place to be, for your own songwriting.

“We have just bought a building here in Hendersonville that the Oakridge Boys used to own. We have moved off Music Row, we’re not in Nashville anymore. So to get in my own studio, with my own microphones is the greatest feeling in the world. To sit down and record on your own label, that is one of Gods blessings and is one of the greatest feelings in the world. You know, I’m writing a lot of instrumentals, I’m not really writing that much lyrics right now. There’s a lot of instrumentation and instrumentals that are coming to me, so there must be ten or twelve new instrumentals that I need to put on an album. I’m thinking of doing an instrumental album with Kentucky Thunder and hopefully that will be out over the next couple of years. So we’re pretty fired up about that! I love to write on the bus, that’s a good place, when you have about 600 miles to go in the night and you wake up and still have another 200 miles to go. Sometimes after a show and I’m just kinda winding down, I’ll grab my mandolin and reflect on what we did on the show that night, I’ll think of something or some sound I heard and try to take it somewhere else. So I’m always digging and trying to come up with a new song. I think I’ll purchase one of these little portable sixteen channel recorders, that’s not very big and you can take on the road. You can record all your songs and instrumentals and can put anything you want on it. I don’t want to loose anything I get out there, I don’t want to forget anything. So I’m going to be prepared on the road, so that if I do get an idea, I’ll always have it and I don’t forget anything.”

Chet Atkins credited you with single handedly saving Country Music. That’s quite a big statement, what do you personally feel about that remark.

“Well, that’s a pretty bold statement to make. We may have been a spark, that started a fire back in the 80s, when country music was going through a pretty heavy crisis. Maybe not as bad as it is now, because it really is going through an identity crisis right now. Everybody’s kinda split down the middle on the situation, like do we want to continue calling it country music, or do we call it something brand new. Back in the early 80s, about 80/81, country music had gone through that urban cowboy craze. Fiddles and steel guitars were getting replaced by synthesisers, keyboards and that kinda thing, so there wasn’t a lot of heart and soul able to come out of the songs. We came out with ‘Crying My Heart Out Over You’ and ‘Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’, ‘Heartbroke’, ‘Highway Forty Blues’, ‘Uncle Penn’ and songs like that. It helped to redefine what country music was all about and it gave Nashville and the whole industry a lot of hope to cause this music to really grow. I think from a young person as I was at that time, to still have the honour and respect of Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, Bill Monroe, Hank Snow  and Grandpa Jones have all passed away. The respect and the love and honour I had for them, they had right back for me. They were really in my camp and were very much helping to promote what I was doing, because they knew I was coming at this music from a respect level, not just a financial level. When I became a member of the Grand Ole Opry, they knew that there was a new, younger generation coming up that still loved this music. I think that it gave them peace in their heart that there would be someone there to carry on the traditions of the Grand Ole Opry and country music. That’s lasted quite a while and with the new sounds coming out now, you think of the George Jones song ‘Who’s Going To Fill Their Shoes’.”

That certainly rings true.

“There is always a remnant for this music, you can’t put out the fire of passion for country music and bluegrass. In all that, we are still carrying on and doing our part to keep it alive. And we’re sure looking forward to coming over too.”

We are looking forward to seeing you. Are we likely to see you doing a tour in your own right.

“Yes. We have never been over to tour with a bluegrass band and if the crowd really loves what we are doing and get off on it, we could come back and do a whole tour.” 

Well thanks for your time and speaking to me.

“Well I was glad to do it Graham and look forward to meeting you.”  


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