Bluegrass still rules with Ricky Skaggs

Rick Bell, March 2003

It would seem that two decades after consistently topping the country charts and almost single-handedly leading the new-traditionalist movement of the early 1980s that paved the way for the likes of Dwight Yoakam, Randy Travis and Patty Loveless, Ricky Skaggs would be content to pick up his mandolin, hop in the tour bus and hit the road every so often to stretch his legs and make a few bucks by singing his hits and picking a little bluegrass.

Not quite. In fact, not by a longshot.

While some country stars don't know when to call it a career, Skaggs continues to perform at some of the highest levels of musical artistry. And while other performers may dabble in management or production once the career is over, Skaggs has thrown himself headlong not only into producing others, but managing and owning his own record company that in just a few short years has positioned itself among the more impressive indie labels in country or bluegrass.

Since its inception in 1997, Skaggs Family Records - which includes the Ceili Music label - has compiled an impressive stable of artists led by the Del McCoury Band and Mountain Heart.

(Skaggs, however, is in the process of phasing out Ceili - combining all artists under the single umbrella of Skaggs Family Records to avoid the confusion of two different labels in such an already small, hard-to-be-known indie market.)

Yet, even more impressive are the awards Skaggs and his band, Kentucky Thunder, accumulated.

To date, they have won the International Bluegrass Music Associa-tion's instrumental group of the year four of the past five years. Skaggs has added three more Grammys to the ones he won during his country heyday since starting his label.

Amazingly, all the albums released on Skaggs Family Records since its debut - "Bluegrass Rules!" "Ancient Tones," "Soldier of the Cross," "Big Mon" and "History of the Future" - have garnered Grammy nominations, with three capturing the coveted award.

It's quite possible the run will continue when the 2004 Grammys roll around. Skaggs and his label release "Live at the Charleston Music Hall" March 25.

Unlike many live albums, which ultimately are a cavalcade of hits with another cut or two added for good measure, Skaggs shuns his country past for a 15-song set of pure bluegrass. The lone foray back into his chart-topping days is the very un-country "Uncle Pen," a reminder that bluegrass, at least in Skaggs' terms, did at one time rule country music.

"I'd always wondered why we never did a live album. We've done so many studio albums over the years," says Skaggs in a phone interview from Nashville. "I couldn't even tell you how many. The only other live one was 'Live in London.' I enjoyed it, but that was a long time ago."

"It's probably because I'm such a studio hog. I put on my white coat and mix a little of this and a little of that. But this was fun. Its focus is purely on bluegrass."

The new album is not merely Skaggs and a group of backing musicians who occasionally get their licks in either. As any good boss will tell you - and Skaggs is indeed a successful small-businessman - you need to treat your employees right to keep the customers happy.

"This is a wonderful band that has received a lot of recognition," Skaggs says of Kentucky Thunder. "With a band like this, I thought, 'Why not do a live album?' They are excellent stage musicians as well as studio musicians. And I think that comes through in the album because the testosterone, or whatever, builds up on stage as the audience cheers. When you listen to the album you can hear these guys feeding off it."

The current edition of Kentucky Thunder is a near-perfect blend of young bucks and wily veterans. Both Andy Leftwich and Cody Kilby are in their early 20s.

Leftwich, who plays both fiddle and mandolin, amazes Skaggs with every new lick the Whitehouse, Tenn., native delivers. Skaggs ought to know, having built his reputation early in his career on both instruments, first as a member of Ralph Stanley's Clinch Mountain Boys and later as one of the key members of arguably the greatest country band ever, Emmylou Harris' Hot Band of the 1970s.

Skaggs is equally impressed with Kilby, calling the 22-year-old guitarist and Tennessee native a "gun for hire."

"When these young guys start picking, the crowd erupts," Skaggs says. "They're so great and so young, and they're still learning, still pushing in and learning."

While the pair could very well be the future of bluegrass music, they are learning their licks as band members alongside some longtime world-class pickers. Guitarist and tenor vocalist Paul Brewster was a member of the Knoxville Grass when Skaggs was carving his own licks in the early '70s with his band, Boone Creek.

Bassist Mark Fain is a veteran session player steeped in gospel, yet has laid down licks for the Dixie Chicks and John Fogerty. Darrin Vincent is perhaps best known for his bass work and baritone vocals while performing with his sister, Rhonda Vincent. Yet, as a member of Kentucky Thunder, he shows his versatility on guitar and mandolin, as well as handling bass vocal chores.

Jimmy Mills has become one of the most respected banjo player in the world. The IBMA honored Mills as its banjo player of the year in 1999, 2000 and 2001.

"He's an Earl Scruggs-type picker who has the three T's - tone, twang and taste," Skaggs says. "His playing is so good and so well-rounded."

The live album proved to be a farewell of sorts for fiddler Bobby Hicks, an outstanding solo performer and a member of Skaggs' bands for two decades. Hicks, honored recently by the Alabama World Fiddler's Hall of Fame, retired shortly after taping the Charleston show in November. Skaggs says at 70 years old, Hicks retired just because it was time to slow down.

"Bobby left the group after 21 years," Skaggs says. "He'll be missed, but Andy should do fine. Since he plays mandolin too, I'll be able to play a little more guitar."

Skaggs says a live album doesn't happen by just turning on the mike and letting the tape roll. The trick comes in making sound that way.

"The studio can get a little sterile. These guys deserve to go out on the edge, but a live album is tough to do," he says. "There are a few rough edges because you sometimes play outside of yourself. But they're great. It would be very boring to just watch Ricky play. They're my employees and bandmates, but they're also my partners. I know the rhythm's gonna be there, I know Jimmy's there to do his solo. These guys are a joy to work with."

Skaggs knows he's taking a risk by purposely leaving hit songs like "Country Boy," "Highway 40 Blues," "Heartbroke" and "Waitin' for the Sun to Shine" off the live album.

But there may be some method to his madness. First and perhaps foremost, Skaggs continues to emphasize his bluegrass roots. Though he never completely left it even as a member of Harris' Hot Band or during his lengthy career as a solo country artist, he opened himself up to criticism in the bluegrass community.

Skaggs noted in a previous interview that his former boss, Ralph Stanley, once said, "Yeah, I'm proud of Ricky, He's done good, but...he'll come back. I know he will. He loves this music. He'll be back, he's just out there making a name for himself, and he'll come back and when he does, he'll do a lot for bluegrass."

So like some sort of modern-day prophet, Stanley's prediction indeed came true. Skaggs has returned to the bluegrass fold that brought his first taste of recognition. It was a trip, of course, that started as Skaggs stood alongside Keith Whitley in the early 1970s as part of Stanley's Clinch Mountain Boys.

Along the way, he played with the Country Gentlemen and in 1975 performed on the milestone bluegrass album J.D. Crowe and the New South, which also included the likes of guitarist Tony Rice and Dobro player Jerry Douglas as band members. Skaggs followed with his own band, Boone Creek, then took a permanent spot in Harris' Hot Band when Rodney Crowell branched into his own solo career.

That two-year stint led to his solo debut on the Sugar Hill label, which helped launch his career on Epic Records. Despite the urban cowboy madness at the time, Skaggs proved there was an audience ready and willing to return to country's roots. It was quite simple, really. Skaggs took everything he'd learned to that point and packaged it.

It's quite possible that in the not too distant future, Skaggs may revisit some of his old hits.

"I'm gonna do an album someday - I hope it's soon - of some of my old songs," Skaggs says. "For lack of a better title, I'd call it 'what I meant to say.' I'd like to redo my country hits in bluegrass style, try to do acoustic versions. Really, you pull the drums, electric guitar and steel out, and you have bluegrass."

Such a project - like any project, for an indie label, comes with a risk. It was much the same call with the new live album, Skaggs said.

"Money is tight," Skaggs says. "I have 21 employees counting on me as a small businessman. To offer fans a CD of live remakes would be cheating them. I knew people wanted to hear some of them, but we wanted to do new songs people can't buy somewhere else."

With Lyric Street records as a partner - the major label repackaged and brought "Big Mon," a tribute to the late Bill Monroe, to a wider audience. And there are other opportunities to spread the gospel of bluegrass. If there are enough requests for it, Skaggs may release "A Simple Life," the Harley Allen song off the live album, as a single.

"What do you think?" Skaggs asks. "The live version is great. People hoot and holler for it. If they like the song, I'd be willing to do a studio version to go out on radio."

Until that time comes, Skaggs has a spring and summer filled with touring. And he's currently wrapping up production on several projects, including "The Three Pickers: The Legends of Bluegrass," a special taped featuring Skaggs, Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs for PBS that will be released on Rounder Records.

"It's 95 percent finished," Skaggs says of the disc. When asked how they sound, Skaggs laughs and says, "Well they're 80; they don't play like they did when they were 50. I hope to play that well when I'm 80."

Skaggs said he would have preferred it was the Four Pickers.

"I would have liked it better if we'd had Bill Monroe with us," he says. "But we're a little late for that. Still, it's a real honor to stand onstage and perform with Doc and Earl."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •