RICKY SKAGGS: Making Old Traditions New
Probably the only musician who will ever be able to say that he has shared stages with both Ralph Stanley and Phish, Ricky Skaggs has squeezed a full lifetime of music into his 54 years. Sipping bottled water and checking his cell phone messages as he sits in the back of a modestly furnished tour bus, he looks like a fully modern man, but he has never hidden the fact that he now sees his mission as preserving the past. Today, before another in a string of collaborative performances with pianist Bruce Hornsby, that fact is pushed to the side, and he’s worried about cramming their usual two-hour set into a paltry 60-minute show. Monroe and Stanley probably wouldn’t wade into the swift confluence of styles that turn up during Hornsby and Skaggs’ more experimental jams, but the crowd – a mix of deadheads and traditional bluegrass fans-lap it up. It’s just another chapter in an already overstuffed career-one that could produce several more volumes before it’s finished.
Since you’ve been doing this since you were a kid, did you ever have any other career aspirations?
Not really. I’ve always been able to stay self-satisfied in my heart with music. I’ve made money with my music all my life. When I was seven-years-old, I did Flatt & Scruggs’ TV show and got paid $52.50 in a check, and in 1961 that was a lot of money, especially for a seven-year-old. It was pretty amazing. So I knew there were financial reasons to want to do it. Then I started with Ralph Stanley when I was 15, and he started paying $25 a day, which wasn’t a lot of money. But the next year he gave us a raise to $30, $35 Saturday, and $35 Sunday, and that made us $100 for a weekend-me and Keith Whitley. That wasn’t bad. Later on, I started getting more salaried positions with the Country Gentleman and Emmylou Harris. Boone Creek was tough. We had to slice it four ways and pay all the expenses, and it was a lot of work to do everything. As far as the satisfaction part, I was content to play even during the time I had another job. I had one job that I can somewhat boast about. I worked at an electric company in Virginia, and I sucked so bad at that. I was just awful. I flooded the basement one night. I was supposed to be washing out a boiler, and I had my banjo with me at work, in a little break room upstairs. And I got my banjo out and was playing some and let the time slip by, and the next thing I knew an hour had gone by, and that thing had overflowed and I saw these 50-gallon drums floating on the basement floor. And I saw my supervisor knee-deep in water, and he was about ready to kill me. So I just knew. I really believed God had called me to be a musician. I said then, “If I can play full time, that’s what I want to do.” About that time the Country Gentlemen needed a fiddle player, and that was the first time they’d ever hired a fiddle player, so I was able to play some fiddle and acoustic guitar with them. So that was a full-time position for me, and from then on I’ve stayed in the business of music.
Since you were such a small boy when you played on the Flatt & Scruggs show, were you nervous going up there in front of so many people?
You know, it has been on YouTube for years, and it’s now on DVD. I have a copy on my iPhone and I watch it sometimes. I don’t look nervous. It’s funny. I look at myself and I see a confidence there. Paul Warren was supposed to take a fiddle break, and he didn’t take it. And I cocked my eye over looking at him, like, “This is how we worked it up. You’re supposed to play there.” So I was just chucking rhythm. I wasn’t going to start playing solo like I was the one to mess up. “Uh-uh. Not me.” So I had some confidence. Not arrogance, I don’t think. Maybe on later people might have accused me of that, and I probably was arrogant. I’m sure I was. But I don’t remember being real nervous or anything. Even the first time I played at the Grand Ole Opry, I remember having butterflies, but I knew I was supposed to be there. It was something that I’d wanted in my heart for years. I wanted to be a part of that. I’d heard it so much from my home in Kentucky where we lived. We listened to it religiously every weekend, on Friday and Saturday nights, and when we lived in Nashville, we would go to the Opry on the weekends. We just loved the Opry, and seeing music and seeing people come out on stage. It was just an awesome thing. But I don’t remember being too nervous.
When you first met Keith Whitley, did you realize he was a special musician?
No. Not really. When I first met him, I knew that we were like-minded. I knew that we had a lot in common. I knew that he loved the same kind of music that I did and singers and songs and bands that I did. I felt like, in my heart, that we would be friends, that this wouldn’t be our first and only meeting. As a matter of fact, I invited him over to my house the next weekend, and he came. And we just sang and played together, and my dad joined in, and his brother, Dwight, played on banjo. We had an awesome relationship. We met Ralph Stanley at a beer joint in West Virginia, right across the Kentucky line, across the Big Sandy River. We went over to see him, and Roy Lee Centers had just joined the band, and we heard how much he sounded like Carter, so we wanted to go and hear him. By accident, Ralph was going to be late. He called the promoter and told him the bus had broken down and they were going to be an hour late. So the club owner had heard of me, and my dad played, and he said, “Could you all get up and sing a little bit while Ralph is getting here?” Of course, my dad’s theory was “Always be prepared. Always take your instruments with you.” So we had them in our car, and we said, “Yeah, we’ll do that. No problem. We’ll help.”‘ The only songs Keith and I knew were Stanley Brothers songs, so we’re up there playing, and our instrument cases are back there in Ralph’s dressing room. And we were on stage, and Ralph comes walking in, and the band comes walking in and is going backstage, and Ralph pulls up a chair and is listening. And nobody is bothering him, like, “Hey, Ralph! How are you doing, buddy? Can I have an autograph.” He’s just sitting there, and I’m looking at him and singing, wondering what he’s thinking. Is he thinking what are these young smart aleck kids doing up there? Or is he digging it? I asked him about it later on, and he said “Man, I was just reminiscing of the days me and Carter were starting, and it sounded so much like what we were singing like when we were your age.” So that was pretty cool, and that started a relationship with Ralph. Keith had one year of school left, and so did I, and we ended up getting a job from Ralph as soon as we got out of school to go work for him full-time. I grew to know how special Keith was, but I didn’t know that at our first meeting. I didn’t see prominence and brilliance, and neither did he see it on me, I’m sure. We were just a bunch of kids that loved all kinds of music, but especially the Stanley Brothers. They were our heroes.
So how long after that did Ralph ask you to join his band?
See, I had sung a couple times with Ralph and Carter, just as a guest. So he remembered me, especially after my dad said, “This boy played with ya’ll when he was little.” “Why yeah! He growed up,” Ralph said. I guess after that night in West Virginia, we went down to Ralph’s house in Virginia and met his mom, and his wife, who was pregnant with his first daughter. That was probably three or four months after we met. And they were having a bluegrass festival in Camp Springs, North Carolina, and I think that was in July. And Ralph asked us to go down there with him, because they were doing “The Stanley Brothers Story,” like a Stanley Brothers reunion/history kind of thing. So Ralph wanted me and Keith to come down and sing some of the old songs that he and Carter and Pee Wee Lambert did when they were starting out. That’s the stuff that Keith and I loved, and we were so excited. We got on the bus in Virginia. We went to somebody’s house first and got some moonshine, and here we were 15 years old! We had no bed to sleep in, so we had to sit up in these old bus seats. They had some bunks in the back, but in the front you just had to sit up. There were no couches or TV’s or any of that. I think you could lean them back a click or two. But we were so excited that we couldn’t hardly stand it. We couldn’t believe it. When the bus pulled out, my stomach started turning in knots because I was so excited. He hired us after that show, and then New Year’s Eve we went to Columbus, Ohio, and played at a show up there. I think it was probably after that show that he said that he’d like for us to play with him in the summer after we finished school and that he’d get us a full-time job after we graduated. And, to me, that was college. It would be the same as a math major or a quantum physics major going out on the road with Einstein.
What was it like to have Ralph Stanley, this musician who you had admired your whole life, become your boss?
Well, it was cool. He was very easy to work for, and he was good about giving me some direction. Being young, as a musician your tendency is to grow and get better at your instrument and to stretch your boundaries and learn more stuff. I was learning from other mandolin players of the day. When I was living in Kentucky, it was Bill Monroe records that I was listening to, or Bobby Osborne, or Pee Wee Lambert, who had played with the Stanley Brothers 25 or 30 years before that. I was mostly listening to old records, and there was maybe one mandolin player in the country that I knew about, and he wasn’t very good. I was pretty much on my own to learn, and whatever I could learn, I had to get off a record. But I remember that once we started playing the festival circuit, I started hanging out with other mandolin players, and you know how it would be with like-minded musicians and all. I was trying to learn some of their licks. I remember playing those licks one night in some of Ralph’s songs, and I remember him looking over at me one night, like, “You shouldn’t have played that. That doesn’t fit here.” And afterwards, he was real gentle about it. He said, “You know, there are some styles that work together, and some that don’t. When you’re taking a break,”-which is what he calls it-“I want the audience to be able to know what that tune is without me singing it.” I said, “OK, that makes a lot of sense. I can do that.” So I’ve carried that in my head and even taught it to my musicians, as well. Really, if you think about it, and you go back and listen to Django [Reinhardt] and Stephane Grappelli, the first time through was the melody always. Even if it was “Tiger Rag.” The second time through, it’s get-up-and-play-every-note-you-know. With Bob Wills’ music, they would establish the melody as a band. The whole band would play-it might be fiddles, it might be a steel guitar, it might be an electric guitar. They would all play the melody, and then each individual member would swing a solo. That was just his sound, more like a big-band thing. I understood that, and I passed it on to my musicians, as well. It’s OK to stretch out on a solo, but somewhere come back to the melody, just to be cool. Most people want to just keep blowing.
So when you started your solo career, what were you expecting?
Oh gosh…it was such a new adventure. I’d already had some experience in the areas of booking and management with Boone Creek, and I knew I didn’t want to do that again. I didn’t want to do a partnership with somebody. I was willing to pay for it all myself and even invest in it my time so that I could get paid on the other end of it, somehow, later on. And I’m still waiting for that! [Laughs] As far as expectations, I really didn’t know what to expect. When I was with Emmy, I was getting experience in areas of music that I really hadn’t traipsed around in much, especially with electric instruments-steel guitar, piano, drums, electric bass, electric guitar. So working with her those two years helped me know how that stuff flows and how it works together, but I wanted to do something more traditional than what she was doing. That whole Roses in the Snow thing, I was so involved with that that it was amazing. I brought a lot of songs to the project and oversaw a lot of the solos and harmony stuff. I had produced some Boone Creek stuff, but as far as a major label and a major album, that was my induction into producing and co-producing with somebody. I think what I was hoping was that people would like what they heard. I had done an album while I was with her called Sweet Temptation for Sugar Hill Records. That was my first venture into a country and bluegrass mixture. There was a song on that that did real good called “I’ll Take the Blame,” and it was No.1 in three markets in the U.S. So people and labels, especially guys that were working radio at CBS and RCA, they were beginning to hear the name “Ricky Skaggs,” “that guy who sings with Emmylou.” So when I did my second record for Sugar Hill, and that ended up being Waitin’ for the Sun to Shine for Sony, because they bought it from Sugar Hill. I don’t think I expected anything. What I knew was that it was going to take a lot of work, and I had just gone through a divorce, and I knew I was going to be away from my kids a whole lot more. I had two kids from my first marriage, and they are 28 and 30 now. I knew I was going to be working a lot and away from them, and I knew it was going to be a long time until I was able to get into a bus and have a good band, but things started happening really quick. Our first single went Top 40, number 26, actually-“Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’.” And then “You May See Me Walking” was Top 10, and “Crying My Heart Out Over You” was No. 1, my third single. And then I had 12 No. 1’s in a row. Boy, it happened so fast, and I just couldn’t believe how quick things were happening and on such a massive scale. We’d go to a city somewhere that I hadn’t been before, and all these people were there and had come out to see me. It was unbelievable, like, “I’ve never been here before. How’d you all know I was coming?” It really opened my eyes to radio and how powerful that medium was at the time, much more than it is now. I was getting educated a lot, really quick.
I was looking over your career, and around 1978 you made a record with Tony Rice, you made your first solo record, you were playing with the Hot Band, and you were in Boone Creek. How did you do all four of those things at the same time?
Well, Boone Creek had pretty much dissolved by then, and I was really hoping that they’d stay together and keep going. I thought it was a good sound that we’d established, and I thought they could have found another mandolin player and tenor singer and gone on, but they didn’t want to. That was tragic, but looking back on it now; it worked out, especially for Jerry. He went on and did things. Terry Baucom went back home for awhile and then did a few things with another band. But Wes Golding, he just went back to Canaan, Va., and never really did much. He was a writer and a good singer and good guitar player, and I felt there was a lot more he could have done. But sometimes people don’t have the drive it takes to put something together and be the guy responsible for squirting oil in all the moving parts, keeping it all going. I felt like I had done that from day one. Keith and I had wanted to put together a band, even when we were with Ralph. We always had plans to do that. But when Roy Lee Centers was murdered, I remember at the funeral, we went and had lunch with Ralph, and he asked Keith to come and sing with him full-time. And Keith did and stayed with him for four or five years. So that kind of shot down any future that he and I had together. I figured I would move on and do things.
I did go with Emmy in ‘78 and ‘79, and then up until August of 1980 I was with her. During that time in ‘78, I was in L.A. quite a bit, and I’d go out and work on the road, or I’d go and work in the studio with Emmy. And if I had a weekend off and had to work again on Monday, I’d just stay in L.A. I wouldn’t fly back to Kentucky with my family. So Tony and I decided to do a record. I had done that Manzanita record with him and some other recordings with [David] Grisman, and he and I had an idea to do a duet record-just mandolin and guitar and sing some old Monroe Brothers and Stanley Brothers things. So that’s how that all came about, and that happened in that year. It was a busy time. I’ve never been afraid of work. I’ve always worked a lot, and I’ve got my thumbprint on a whole bunch of stuff out there.
Then the neo-traditionalist movement started. Were you ever able to stand back and say, “Wow, this is really because of me”?
I never knew what that meant-“neo-traditionalist.” Everybody would write about me, like, “The King of Neo-traditional Country,” and I’d be like, “What is that?” Me and George Strait and Reba [McEntire] were the three younger kids. She was already doing some country records and had been an up-and-comer, but she hadn’t had a No. 1 record yet. But we all came out about the same time, and of the three of us, I was the first to have a hit. And then George has one with “Unwound,” and he just took off. Country music had a really young following at that time, and then Randy Travis and Marty Stuart and Travis Tritt and Steve Wariner and Clint Black came along. I started trying to keep my position, and music was starting to change in the ‘90s. It was getting a whole lot more female and a whole lot more pop, kind of like it was when I came to Nashville in ‘80 and ‘81. It was a different sound then. Brooks & Dunn and Garth [Brooks] were having the great big tours-circus tours, basically, swinging in on grapevines and seeing how big a tour could be. And I said, “I will not compete with that. I’m not going to swing in on stage and drop down. That’s not who I am. I’m not going to do that. I don’t care if I sell 500 million records. My integrity is worth more to me, because I want to do this for a long time.” I don’t want to retire, because what am I going to do? I couldn’t hold down a job at a gas station. Those guys were really moving on, and I felt like they were increasing and I was decreasing. My share of stock was worth less in the business. So I started trying to figure out how I could reinvent myself. Bill Monroe passed away in 1996, and I had been feeling for six months to a year this deep calling to go back and really revisit my roots, to go back and clean that well out that had been stopped up. And I went back and realized there was more there than I had ever dug into before. God had given me a scripture at Bill Monroe’s funeral, and it was Isaiah 11:11, and it says, “In that day, I will extend my hand a second time.” And it was like I knew exactly what he was talking about. At his passing, he’s gone. “Moses, my servant is dead. Joshua you’re going to go on.” That kind of thing. I felt like God was going to bless that old traditional music again. The humble things He exalts. Pride, he resists. I felt like if I could stay humble and play music of the people, music of the heart, music of God and family, that I would be in really good stead with God, and I’d rather have Him promoting me than Sony any day. I started Skaggs Family Records in 1997, and that was a great thing for me. It was a costly thing, and it ended up costing a lot of the money I was making on the road to keep it going, but I knew there was a future in it if I could make good records and get artists who could make good records that the masters would be worth something. It’s almost like a couture label, where I could pick the cream of the crop and record them. It’s been a lot of work, and a lot of things have worked, and a lot of things haven’t. You don’t get that money back when something doesn’t work, and that’s why we don’t do videos. You spend $30,000 for a video, and there’s no guarantee that CMT will play it. I’m some dumb but I ain’t plumb dumb. Anyway, I’m really glad to have the label, and it has some great artists. I love the fact that we’re trying to keep it small and not trying to be another Rounder. We’re trying to keep it small and real effective at what it is. We’ve won a lot of Grammy’s since we’ve gone back to bluegrass, and that has been a real encouragement to me.
So what’s next for you?
Well, I think TV is still big, and I think the Internet is big, and I think satellite radio is doing pretty well. I would like to figure out, time-wise, if I could afford the time to do another television show like I did with “Monday Night Concerts” with CMT. Or maybe something with Internet broadcasts on a somewhat regular basis. We’re trying to figure out how to hit more people at once and let my time be more valuable there than going out to play for 1000 tonight, 2000 tomorrow night, and 500 the next night. Not that I want to get off the road; it’s not that. I do like being able to travel and play and be close to people. But some sort of television or something may be in the works. We’re redoing my old country hits and doing them bluegrass. I’ll tell you, some of the tracks I think are better than the originals. And we’re having fun doing this thing with Bruce. I don’t think either one of us is down for quitting it. I don’t know that we necessarily need to go back into the studio and do another record. We might do a live CD, where we can do all kinds of weird stuff and ten-minute versions of songs. We’re having fun and would like to keep doing it.