Ricky Skaggs – Going back to old Kentucky
Ricky Skaggs in No Depression? I can already see some readers scratching their heads — or, more likely, flinging their copies across the room. Skaggs, after all, has been a NashVegas mainstream country fixture for years, and though his latest country album (Life Is A Journey, on Atlantic) is doing well on Gavin’s Americana chart, those familiar with the 43-year-old singer only through his TNN series of Monday night concerts at the Ryman may wonder what he’s doing in the pages of a magazine that mostly covers…well, you know.
These days, though, Skaggs is a man with a mission. Simply put, it’s to bring what Steve Earle recently called “the original alternative country” — that is, bluegrass, especially the hard-core bluegrass of the genre’s early years — to new audiences. In pursuit of that goal, he’s been preaching the gospel of bluegrass out on the road, and he’s released his first all-bluegrass album in well over a decade. Like any good missionary, he’s found a way to simplify his message, in this case to a single, memorable phrase: The title of his new release on the freshly christened Rounder Records imprint Skaggs Family Records is Bluegrass Rules, and the music he has been making, both on the album and at his shows this past summer, is all the proof needed to drive home his point.
On a mild September Saturday evening, I went down to the Farnham Dudgeon Civic Auditorium in Frankfort, Kentucky, to catch Skaggs’ show-closing set at the Kentucky Folk Life Festival. I traveled there with Dwight McCall, a friend and former bandmate of mine who presently occupies Skaggs’ old tenor vocals/mandolin spot in J.D. Crowe’s New South, one of two other acts on the bill. McCall is a huge fan of Skaggs, the kind of guy who can knowledgeably discuss the variations between a dozen different bootlegged tapes of Skaggs singing “Molly And Tenbrooks” back in his New South days, and I was curious to see what he thought of Skaggs and his band, Kentucky Thunder.
Frankfort’s Civic Center is mostly geared toward sporting events, and it made for a slightly peculiar bluegrass venue; thanks to a poor advertising strategy, it was only about half full by the time the show kicked off. If the crowd was small, it was nevertheless enthusiastic about a bill composed of native Kentucky frontmen and their bands. Crowe (from Lexington) and the Osborne Brothers (from Hyden, though longtime Nashville residents), with Skaggs acting as a garrulous emcee, were well-received as they delivered sets of both old favorites and new material. Then it was time for Kentucky Thunder.
Though Skaggs began his journey back to bluegrass several years ago, it has only been recently — this past festival season, really — that he’s been out and about putting on bluegrass shows. In keeping with the show’s theme, a celebration of Bill Monroe, Skaggs and his band hit the stage hard with one of Monroe’s best-known invocations of his native state, “I’m Going Back To Old Kentucky”, and never let up. Pushing the band with his mandolin, much as Monroe used to do, he blazed through a set comprised almost exclusively of Monroe favorites, from the furious fiddle-led instrumental “Big Mon” through the biography of “Uncle Pen” to the dark gospel quartet “Get Down On Your Knees And Pray,” before winding up the scheduled set with the mandolin rave-up, “Get Up John”.
It was an overpowering show, and McCall wasn’t the only musician who could be seen at the side of the stage alternately shaking his head and muttering in admiration at Skaggs’ flawless performance and the no less powerful work of the band — elder statesman and fiddler Bobby Hicks, guitar phenom Bryan Sutton, upright bassist Mark Fain, guitarist/tenor singer Paul Brewster, guitarist/baritone singer Darrin Vincent, and favored guest banjo player Jimmy Mills of North Carolina. These are men who, though mostly young, have spent their lifetimes playing bluegrass — in Hicks’ case, with Monroe himself throughout the immensely creative years of the 1950s — and their combined century and a half’s worth of experience is tightly focused on a sound that, while leavened with a few contemporary touches (notably Sutton’s blistering lead guitar work), is so firmly tradition-oriented that no one seemed to notice the virtually unheard-of three-guitar configuration. As McCall said later, “It looks crazy, but when they’re that good, who cares?”
“There’s something coming with this music,” Skaggs enthuses over the phone. “It’s like it’s been hidden for years.”
That may or may not be true, but if it is, part of the responsibility lies at the door of the label Skaggs was signed to for years, Columbia/Epic. At his Frankfort show, Skaggs launched into a brief but pithy description of the problem: “They wouldn’t let me record any bluegrass. I even had to fight with ’em to get them to release ‘Uncle Pen’ [from his 1983 album Don’t Cheat In Our Hometown] as a single — and it went to #1.” When Skaggs moved to Atlantic in 1995, he says, new possibilities opened up; the label was willing to allow him outside projects, though apparently still uninterested in releasing bluegrass itself.
In the meantime, his mostly dormant interest in bluegrass had been reinvigorated. “Two or three years ago, Doc Watson invited me to Merlefest, and I asked if I could bring a bluegrass band,” Skaggs recalls. “Before, I’d been going up there and playing with whomever. This time I took Shawn Lane, Billy Joe Foster and Keith Little. We had a blast.” The experience was encouraging enough that Skaggs not only repeated it on a couple of occasions, but found himself spending more time playing bluegrass with Kentucky Thunder members on the bus and in hotel rooms.
“After those first couple of bluegrass dates,” he continues, “we did a tour of New Zealand, where we pretty much opened for ourselves as a bluegrass band. Afterward, I would go to a preset place on the stage and do some solo country or play some fiddle while the stage was reset, and then we’d do a country show. After that, in some cities, we’d open as a country band, then talk about the roots of country, and finish up playing bluegrass. We were getting some confidence, we were having fun, and people were telling me that there was an expression of joy on my face that I hadn’t had on shows in a long time.
“I started talking to my agent, saying, ‘Go out and see if there are three or four festivals we can work. We could afford to do them for less than the country show, because we had a smaller show and fewer equipment needs, etc. That netted us a few festivals — maybe 10 to 20 bluegrass dates in all two years ago — and from there, things just grew to where we have 65 of them this year.”
Though Skaggs had been wandering in the general direction of bluegrass for a while, the death of Bill Monroe last year kicked the process into a higher gear. “A lot of this I couldn’t have done while Bill Monroe was alive,” he says, “because I didn’t want anyone to think I was trying to usurp his position.” In Monroe’s last months, however, after a stroke in the spring of 1996, Skaggs spent many hours with Monroe, and, he says, “I made a promise: I’m going to play bluegrass. I may do some country dates, but I’m going to do bluegrass from now on.”
If Ricky Skaggs has been drawn away from country toward bluegrass, it’s also true that he has, to a large extent, been pushed away from country by the increasing constriction and emptiness of the contemporary mainstream country scene. “Right now, country is in such a place that I don’t know if there’s a place for me,” he says — but quickly adds, “I’m not worried about it, though.” Indeed, looking back over his career, he seems slightly bemused by his mainstream success, which sprouted in the early ’80s shortly after he had spent a few years in Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band. “Playing bluegrass, then going with Emmylou, and only then moving to Nashville, that background set me apart from the whole Urban Cowboy thing,” he remembers. “We were so surprised by what happened; we have a #1 with ‘Crying My Heart Out Over You’? Flatt & Scruggs!?”
While Skaggs avoids any hint of bitterness in his criticism of contemporary country music, his views aren’t particularly complimentary, especially when he contrasts the mainstream radio scene with what’s happening elsewhere. When I spoke to him, he had just appeared on the Country Music Association’s awards show (to present, not perform), but he’d also been at the Gavin Americana radio retreat just a few days earlier, and the contrast between worlds of the latter and the former — especially in regard to radio — was on his mind.
“There was no judgmental criticism at the Gavin event, and that was a big difference,” he says. “There’s so much criticism in country radio these days, people and labels trying to knock each other down; when you’re up at the top, losing radio means losing dates. This is something I know: ‘Loving Only Me’ was my last #1 [in 1989], and without subsequent airplay, we’ve seen a decline in dates, a decline in product sales and sometimes a decline in attendance.
“One thing I heard at Gavin was that with one radio group, the owner wrote a letter to country labels: ‘We’re drawing a line in the sand, you’re not going to shove that stuff down our throats anymore.’ I almost turned a double back flip. There are 2500 or 2600 full-time country music stations in this country, and only 10 percent report to Billboard, so in terms of what people are really listening to, it’s sad to me. The chart is a facade, not the real thing; it’s a fantasy.”
Yet beyond these observations, a talk with Skaggs reveals some deeper attitudinal explanations for his change in directions. For one, though he’s a skilled and soulful practitioner of country music, and though he understands that the two styles are intertwined — “it’s kind of a chicken-and-egg thing, bluegrass and country; Bill and Charlie [Monroe], mandolin and guitar, that was pre-bluegrass country” — at bottom he finds bluegrass more demanding, and hence both more stimulating and rewarding.
“There’s a difference this way,” he says. “You can coast in country, be fairly decent and get by, because that music is based so much on the lead vocalist and rhythm section. To be a great bluegrass musician, you’ve got to excel. Like on the mandolin, there’s Ronnie McCoury, Chris Thile, Sam Bush, Butch Baldassari and David Grisman out there. If you’re going to be a banjo player, it’s the same way. The standards are raised in bluegrass; you’re out there on a limb, either sawing yourself off or floating on the music.” And, bringing the point closer to home, he says of Kentucky Thunder: “To work in this group, you have to know your roots. The musicians I really lean on have to have the file cards they can pull out from the ’40s and ’50s; they have to be able to pull out the licks.”
Skaggs can demand such things of his band members in large part because he’s thoroughly mastered the ability himself. The career shift documented in Bluegrass Rules is, after all, not a move to new ground, but a return to home field. Born in Cordell, Kentucky, in 1954, “little Ricky” quickly showed himself as one of the most talented of the thousands of boys who lit out on the path of mastering bluegrass, performing onstage with Monroe and on TV with Flatt & Scruggs before he turned 10. A living-room tape from 1970 shows a 15-year-old Skaggs and equally youthful buddy Keith Whitley in full command of the instrumental and vocal styles of nearby Dickenson County, Virginia, duo the Stanley Brothers — and, sure enough, by the next year, the two of them were working for surviving brother Ralph in his Clinch Mountain Boys because, as Ralph said, “they could sing the old Stanley Brothers songs better than I could.”
Indeed, Skaggs’ talent was so great and so quickly manifested that by the time he participated in the recording of the epochal J.D. Crowe & The New South (Rounder, 1975), he was almost matter-of-factly referred to by a reviewer as “of course [a] recognized master” of the mandolin and fiddle. Bootlegs and rare recordings of that band — frontman J.D. Crowe (himself a former child prodigy who began playing banjo with Jimmy Martin at 14), Skaggs, Tony Rice, a young Jerry Douglas and Bobby Slone — are prized possessions among bluegrass enthusiasts, and Skaggs’ contributions account for much of their appeal.
Though he was barely 21, he had forged personal styles on both the mandolin and the fiddle that seamlessly blended an intimate knowledge of predecessors such as Bill Monroe and Bobby Osborne (to name only a couple of mandolinists) with a contemporary, jazz-influenced approach in ways that render his performances, even now, instantly recognizable. Perhaps more importantly, he had already set a new standard for tenor singers, displaying the curls and turns that characterize Ralph Stanley’s style as well and possessing an uncanny ability to match both tone and part with whatever lead singer he was accompanying. The overall effect was at once powerful and supportive, always identifiable but never overwhelming.
These talents, displayed successively in the Clinch Mountain Boys, the Country Gentlemen, J. D. Crowe & The New South, and Boone Creek, as well as on numerous guest appearances, had made Skaggs a leading figure in bluegrass by the time he turned to country — first in the late ’70s with Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band and on his solo album Sweet Temptation (Sugar Hill, 1979), and then in the full plunge of 1981’s Waiting For The Sun To Shine (Epic). With his meteoric rise to the top of the country charts, his bluegrass appearances became a memory, kept alive by aging recordings and occasional — very occasional — special appearances, as in the mid-1980s New South reunion included on Sugar Hill’s Grammy-winning release, Bluegrass: The World’s Greatest Show. Ironically, when a 1980s return to the traditional (one of the most powerful of several such cycles) took shape, it was driven, in large part, by the recordings and appearances of the Bluegrass Album Band, a project involving mostly musicians closely associated with Skaggs — Rice, Crowe, fiddler Bobby Hicks (then, as now, a member of Skaggs’ band) — but Ricky himself was absent.
Now, with the release of Bluegrass Rules and a growing list of bluegrass gigs, Skaggs is poised to resume a prominent role in the world of bluegrass — and, perhaps more importantly, to bring the music that lies at its center into new arenas. Yet this is no simple picking up where he left off; where Skaggs had, toward the end of the 1970s, mined a progressive vein that was clearly different from (though indebted to) the sound of the earlier masters, he has now reached back to a thoroughly traditional repertoire and a more traditional sound, albeit one that has some distinctly modern characteristics.
He doesn’t rule out a re-emergence of more modern sounds and material, but that’s not what Bluegrass Rules is about, he says. “I couldn’t do 12 brand-new songs, it just didn’t feel right. We’re going to pay honor and tribute to the originals. We’ll probably incorporate more newer stuff as we go along; the floor is open for discussion. There’ll be a lot of that old stuff, but I know that to keep moving on, I want to do new songs, if they have an edge to them. We can take what we’ve heard from the ’40s and ’50s and make it new and fresh.”
Not coincidentally, that was exactly the dominant impression both Dwight McCall and I had as we headed home from Frankfort. Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder have created a sound that comes as close as any to capturing the bluegrass dialectic — that yin and yang of the old and new, the recreative and the creative, the looking back and looking forward that must avoid both the sterility of simple imitation and the abandonment of the things that make bluegrass what it is. It is a remarkable achievement, especially for one who’s so long been gone from the field.
Above all else, one thing Skaggs told me stands out as emblematic: “There’s a power in that music,” he said, “that hasn’t been unleashed since the late ’40s.” Read that as a statement about bluegrass as a whole, and it’s debatable; a lot of people might even argue that Skaggs himself has unleashed plenty of powerful bluegrass in his day. But read it as a statement about a kind of bluegrass that welds together the high mountain emotionalism of the Stanley Brothers’ singing, the Blue Grass Boys’ discipline and skill, and the steadfast vision of Bill Monroe, and it becomes almost a prediction — one that Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder will be doing their best to make true. If anyone’s up to the task, they are.
Jon Weisberger lives in the heart of the Bluegrass Belt, where he divides his time between playing it and writing about it.