Ricky Skaggs shows he's a man of few words – September 2006
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Ricky Skaggs shows he's a man of few words  Print

By Rick Bell, September 2006

It seems a bit peculiar that a master multi-instrumentalist like Ricky Skaggs has somehow managed to avoid recording an all-instrumental album in the past 30 years.

Call it the curse of being an incredibly gifted tenor vocalist as well as an award-winning musician, or perhaps it's that everyone around the 52-year-old Skaggs, from family and friends to fellow pickers to his legions of fans, simply expect him to sing on most every song. With numerous vocal honors from country and bluegrass organizations during a career that stretches back some 35 years, such expectations just kind of come with the territory.

Expectations aside, the multitalented Skaggs decided to rest his vocal cords for an album with the simply titled, musically diverse, 11-song "Instrumentals" on his Skaggs Family Records label. Skaggs entirely wrote and produced "Instrumentals," which features his band Kentucky Thunder, the International Bluegrass Music Association's top instrumental group 7 of the past 8 years.

As if struggling to find a clever title - naming a musical tune is an art form in itself - and being thwarted at every turn, Skaggs chose to simply name the record, "Instrumentals." Despite its recent release, Skaggs noted he and the band have incorporated several cuts into their live show.

"We're already doing five or six songs," Skaggs said in his familiar high-lonesome Kentucky twang. "We've done 'Wayward to Hayward,' 'Missing Vassar,' 'Crossville,' 'Goin' to the Ceili,' and we'll probably start doing some more."

Okay, for the record, the 52-year-old Skaggs recorded a largely instrumental album "That's It," as he recollected during an interview at his home in Nashville, "back when I was about 18 years old." It appears "That's It" originally was recorded in 1975 on the Sundown label and re-released in 1997 on Rebel Records.

Indeed, that probably seems like a lifetime ago for Skaggs, the Kentucky native who has 10 Grammys to his credit and enough other country and bluegrass honors to cover the walls of several recording studios. Over the course of Skaggs' 35-year career, he has gone from traditional bluegrass to the top of the country charts and back to his roots, though it's not unusual these days to find him in un-bluegrass-like surroundings, such as picking onstage with the likes of progressive jam band Phish.

From a very early age, Skaggs was already tabbed as a musical prodigy. While still in his teens, he was invited to join Ralph Stanley's Clinch Mountain Boys in 1971. By that time, Skaggs had already performed on stage with the likes of bluegrass legends Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs.

Later stints with progressive bluegrass bands J.D. Crowe and the New South and the Country Gentlemen led Skaggs, along with fellow Ralph Stanley sideman and future country star Keith Whitley, to co-found the seminal group Boone Creek. Though Boone Creek recorded just 2 albums, their diverse repertoire put an even younger, fresher face on the rapidly evolving bluegrass scene of the mid-1970s.

By this time, Skaggs' double-barreled talents as a picker and singer had caught plenty of attention - including that of Emmylou Harris, who chose Skaggs to sit in on several recording sessions on her groundbreaking early albums. His talents led to a permanent role with Harris' Hot Band in 1977 after Rodney Crowell left to pursue his solo career. Skaggs' traditional influences helped push Harris in 1980 to record the straight-ahead bluegrass album "Roses in the Snow," which by 1981 went gold and yielded 2 top 10 country hits.

In the face of the Urban Cowboy boom, Skaggs not only persuaded Harris to record traditional bluegrass and country music (1979's "Blue Kentucky Girl" also won a Grammy), he also drew plenty of attention to his own budding career.

Skaggs released his solo debut "Sweet Temptation" on Sugar Hill, which instantly became a rarity in music - a hit bluegrass record. That garnered the attention of Epic Records in Nashville, which soon released Skaggs' major label debut, "Waitin' for the Sun to Shine."

It's a solo career that, while there have been some peaks and valleys, hasn't slowed since.

And for whatever the reason, it's taken Skaggs all this time in the music business to devote himself to resting his vocals and laying down 11 music-only tracks.

Skaggs is especially proud of a recent show in San Diego, where he and Kentucky Thunder performed "Crossing the Briney" with the San Diego Symphony. "We did it with and 80-piece orchestra," he says. Not surprisingly, Skaggs adds, "It sounded gorgeous."

Skaggs also plans to perform it with a symphony for the annual IBMA awards in October. He expects similar results. "It's something I wrote and wanted to be big with all the moving parts and strings."

His friend and chart-writer Jim Gray, who often helps Skaggs with his Christmas shows, scored the orchestration. "He had ideas, and it just got bigger and bigger," he says. "I love the way it came out."

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