A Conversation with Ricky Skaggs about His Memoir, “Kentucky Traveler: My Life in Music”
One of bluegrass’ most beloved artists, Ricky Skaggs has lived a blessed life, it would seem. He’s played with Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley. He joined up with J.D. Crowe and the New South, Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band, and started his own short-lived band, Boone Creek, which featured a young Vince Gill. In 1982, Skaggs became the youngest member to be inducted to the Grand Ole Opry at that time. Now, he adds to his long list of musical accolades and accomplishments an inspiring memoir, written with Eddie Dean, titled Kentucky Traveler: My Life in Music (It Books/HarperCollins).
This memoir takes the reader on a grand tour of Skaggs’ life in bluegrass. As he sums it up: “And there was the little mandolin, just my size. I put my hands around the neck, my first feel of wood and steel together. I’ve never forgotten that feeling. In a way, it was almost spiritual … Dad showed me three basic chords — G, C, and D … Then he stepped aside and let me go to it … When I first heard the sound it could make, my heart leapt inside me. Once I held that mandolin in my hands, nothing was ever the same.”
Skaggs talked with me recently about his new book, his family, his faith, and his music.
Henry Carrigan: Why did you decide to write this book now?
Ricky Skaggs: Well, I really didn’t want to get any older before I set all this down. About ten years ago, another publisher approached me and asked me if I’d be interested in writing an autobiography, but I was just really busy back then and didn’t have time to devote to it. Then, about three years ago, HarperCollins came to me and asked me if I’d be interested in writing my memoir, and it seemed like the right time. I worked hard on it for a couple of years, missed a few deadlines here and there, but the folks at Harper were gracious and worked with me. You know, I feel like ten years ago it just wasn’t the right time for me to do this. So many things, good and bad, have happened over these years. I started the label — Skaggs Family Records — and had the chance to produce some great artists, toured and worked on my own most recent album, Music to My Ears, and just celebrated 31 years as a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Of course, I lost some dear friends, too, over the past few years: Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, and Levon Helm. Now that the book’s done I’m so proud to see it.
This autobiography is as much about your mom and dad as it is about you. What do you recall as your dad’s most memorable quality? Your mom’s?
Well, I think so, too. Dad and mom were both great Christian people. My dad was much more reserved than mom. She was very funny and kept things lively around the house, even when times would sometimes get a little hard. My dad was really easy going; he never got in a hurry about anything. He always served others. If a neighbor called him at three in the morning with a busted water pipe, my dad would be right over there to help him fix it. My dad loved music, and he really loved playing it. He wanted you to learn something the right way, and I can still remember him telling me, “You’ve about got it, you’re almost there, just keep working on it,” when he was teaching me a new song.
My mom was happy and giving. She was a hard worker; she had so much to do to keep the house going — feeding us, doing the wash, washing the walls of the house. I mean, who does that anymore? She was a woman of prayer, and she taught me to pray and to believe in the Bible, to believe that every word of it is true. My mom was a great singer — first time I ever sang harmony was with her, when I was three — and a great songwriter. Probably the one [she wrote] that got recorded most was “All I Ever Loved Was You.” Keith Whitley and I recorded it and so did Ralph Stanley.
What’s the writing process like for you?
Well, with this book, I didn’t really stick to any kind of schedule or have any kind of approach. I knew I had some deadlines, and I worked on it every time I could. You know, I’m not known as a great songwriter, but more as a singer. When I need some instrumentals, I’m either writing something new that sounds old, or working on something that has roots in the past to make it new. With instrumentals, I’m always toying with what hits me at the time. For example, the song “New Jerusalem” off my Music to My Ears album just sort of came to me. Five or six years ago, every tune I was writing or playing around with had a Celtic feel to it. I just couldn’t get enough of it. Celtic music is one of the foundation stones for bluegrass.
You say in the book, “I’m a bridge to the past and the future both.” Can you talk about that?
You know, I’ve got the best job in the world. I get to play with the best people in the world. I’ve always tried to be open to music, and I thank my dad for encouraging that openness. When I was a teenager, I was listening to The Hollies, The Beatles, The Everly Brothers, The Stanley Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs, and Bill Monroe. But I’ve got a certain type of music in my roots, in my musical DNA, and I think of myself as a carrier for old time music, and I’m proud of it. I encourage young kids to listen to it and play it. It’s important to teach them about this kind of music and its heritage. Still, I love the fact that I can put my hands out and welcome people in. I’ve had the chance to play with Jack White, Ray Charles, and I just played the other day with Tower of Power. I’m doing some more work with Barry Gibb, who has a great voice, and Bruce Hornsby, and I just released Cluck Ol’ Hen, which is a live album of some songs we cut on our earlier album together, but which includes a bunch that weren’t on that album.
What will readers be surprised to learn about Ricky Skaggs when they read the book?
There are not a lot of new revelations here, but I think many people might be surprised to learn just how long I’ve been in this music business. A lot of my fans think of my career as starting in the early ’80s, but they may be shocked to find out that I was on the stage when I was six, when I played mandolin with Bill Monroe at a show in a nearby town. When I was seven, the Skaggs Family band played on the Ernest Tubb Midnight Jamboree.
What lessons do you hope readers take from your book?
I hope they’ll see that God’s hand has been on me all these years. You know, it wasn’t my dad who arranged for me to get up on that stage with Mr. Monroe or the people who were screaming for him to let little Ricky Skaggs play that night. God had His hand in that. I hope people can see that I’m a follower of Christ. It’s hard work, and I haven’t always lived up to it, but I’ve tried very hard to trust in the Lord all these years, through the ups and downs. When I opened my heart to Jesus — I made a promise to my Grandpa the night he was dying that I’d follow Jesus — my heart opened up, and out of the heart flows music. It’s been a great life, not always a glorious life, but I can see now that really trusting in the Lord is what got me through.