Skaggs carries on the Big Mon's tradition

Tom Netherland, October 2001

Late summer, 1996. Father of bluegrass Bill Monroe lay dying, bedridden from a debilitating stroke. The 84-year-old bluegrass patriarch should have had little to worry over, but worry he did. His music was central to who he was. More giving than a child would have been to him, as nurturing as the mother he lost when young, bluegrass was more than a series of notes to the man from Rosine, Ky.

So, as his light grew ever dim, he fretted mightily that his music was going to the grave with him. Especially over the last decade of his life, Monroe bestowed much upon his protege, Ricky Skaggs. It was to Skaggs that Monroe voiced his concerns over those last days.

Skaggs promised the dying legend that he would play his music until his dying day, too. And he has ever since.

In the intervening five years since Monroe's death, Skaggs left Nashville's country and went back to his roots, bluegrass. He formed two bluegrass record labels, Ceili Music and Skaggs Family Records. Signed stellar talents like the Del McCoury Band and Blue Highway.

And in September, Skaggs issued his latest installment, "History of the Future," in what he calls a lifetime commitment to that which Big Mon dedicated his lifetime to.

"There was a time toward the end of his life when there was depression, and he wondered what was gonna happen to the music," Skaggs says by phone from his Nashville office. "I told him, 'Bill, you don't realize how famous you are and how popular you are and how well loved you are.' I said that I'm gonna play this music for the rest of my life. I'm gonna do my part to keep the music going, and I know there's others out there who are gonna promote it and keep it going as well. He was a little concerned about it."

He needn't have been. For one, had Monroe not fully realized his fame while living, but his star soared after his death. For example, Monroe's the only musician who's a member of the country, rock, bluegrass and songwriter halls of fame.

But then, if Monroe was anything he was mighty protective of his creation. He didn't like for it to be tinkered with. Consequently, he worried for its fate once his fate was sealed six feet under.

"I told him, 'Bill, this music is bigger than you. It grew bigger than Bill Monroe. This music is never gonna die, so I don't want you to think that it's gonna die when you pass away because this music is played all over the world.' Everywhere I've ever traveled, I've been to India, Pakistan, Thailand, Burma and Russia...every country I've ever been in they was either playin' bluegrass or they were asking me about it. It's in great shape," Skaggs says.

"Whether he took to his grave a peaceful heart about it or not, I certainly know that he can know now that it was bigger than it was when he was here. I ain't gonna say it's better. It certainly misses him, but after he passed away his respect level went straight to the top."

Skaggs deserves a great deal of credit for having moved forth much in Monroe's tradition. Not surprisingly, he's recorded a number of Monroe's numbers, including Big Mon's soaked-in-sad classic "Mother's Only Sleeping," on his latest.

More telling, Skaggs released "Big Mon: The Songs of Bill Monroe," last year. A newly signed distribution, marketing and promotion deal with major label Lyric Street means the album will be re-released, armed with a heavier push into markets that may have missed it the first go around.

But, back to Skaggs' "History of the Future" CD. Well-chosen covers number among its 11 selections, including Joe and Rose Lee Maphis' signature song, "Dim Lights Thick Smoke." Skaggs says that he chose to record it much as Flatt & Scruggs did back in 1952, sans honky-tonk bluster. Call it another nod to tradition.

"Substance is what keeps people's attention, and I think bluegrass is alternative country," Skaggs says. "I think by and large we would all agree that there's a lot of stuff coming out of Nashville that's just warmed over pop music. There's no home for it any more. It's too pop to be country and too country to be pop, so it ends up in country music somehow, and they play it. But I think the fans and buyers of country music are saying that this is just not scratchin' my itch anymore. I really think that bluegrass and acoustic type music has always had an audience, but I think it's something people come home to. Over the last four or five years, I've seen more people come home to it and stay than have checked out and leave."

Albums such as "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" pulled long deserved attention to bluegrass, though it's really not a bluegrass album, Skaggs says.

"To have a great soundtrack like 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' certainly hasn't hurt us any. I think when people hear that old time music, they want to learn more about it, so bluegrass is the next place to look after they've heard 1930's and '40's style of string music, which that soundtrack was made to sound like. It wasn't really a bluegrass soundtrack. There really wasn't any bluegrass in it."

No one will ever say that about Skaggs' ambitiously titled "History of the Future." From Carter Stanley's "The Old Home," traditional toe-tapper "Shady Grove" and a re-working of his own "One Way Track," Skaggs' latest is wracked with body and soul.

Bear in mind, though, that Skaggs does not live like some relic, both feet floored in the past. For instance, with his newly-composed instrumental "Road to Spencer," Skaggs melds American bluegrass with Celtic sounds from across the Atlantic. In that he's paired two elements from the past, resulting in a song that's wholly contemporary.

"It's a part of those ancient tones that (Monroe) used to talk about," Skaggs says. "It really is that bridge of Celtic music and American bluegrass music, that joining of two styles of music. That's what 'History of the Future' is all about. Just that title. I've always had my left foot in traditional music with people like Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs and the Stanleys, but my right foot has always been into trying to move ahead and seek out new songs and seek out new musicians and try to keep pushing forward with the music, yet still respecting where the music came from."

Indeed, Mr. Monroe, if you're by chance looking down upon these words, rest easy. Your baby rocks with the gentle breezes of careful hands at work, crafty hands that handle with care as if your music were some fragile child - which it isn't.

See, there's a genuine want for the real thing. That buck-dance worthy bluegrass that Elvis loved, that mule-kicking sound that wove its way through hills and hollers from East Kentucky, down through West Virginia, southwest Virginia and East Tennessee, too.

"That's true. It's all over bluegrass," Skaggs says. "It's all about tradition and respecting elders and carrying on a pattern that was laid down for us. Mr. Monroe's not been away from us but for five years, but you get to thinking about what all has happened since his passing, and bluegrass has grown by leaps and bounds. It's probably more popular now than it ever was in the 1940's and early '50's. More popular than when Flatt & Scruggs took it to Carnegie Hall, more popular than when Bill Monroe took it to Berkeley. It's a thriving music."

And among the music's circles, Ricky Skaggs is its ring leader. Call him Monroe's man. Like Monroe, Skaggs picks a couple of vintage Gibson F-5 mandolins, valuable and rare Lloyd Loar models fully capable of conveying the ancient tones of which he often speaks.

"(Monroe's music) had a drive. It had expression. Just the fact that Bill Monroe leaned in and mashed on it, he gave it all he had, every time. It was like trying to put a 20-pound pig in a 10-pound sack. They weren't up there trying to sing pretty love ballads. It had the grit and fire in it, and I think that's what the rock and rollers liked."

Rock and rollers may or may not get into Skaggs' "History of the Future," but they'd be hard pressed to find another album with as much drive, grit and fire. Take the set-closing "Rollin' My Sweet Baby's Arms." As tricky a song to pull off as is "Blue Moon of Kentucky," mostly because it's been covered to death already.

Skaggs knows that, yet unlike most of those who have bravely ventured to record Flatt & Scruggs classic, he came fully armed with his capable band, Kentucky Thunder. Once completed, he played the song for Earl Scruggs, whose rapid-fire banjo drove the original like a scalded dog on a coon's trail.

"He absolutely loved it," Skaggs says. "Earl sat there and smiled real big when he heard our version. That made me feel like I'd done it right."

Indeed. Yet as Skaggs and other bluegrassers make better and better music, logic leads one to conclude that its audience will grow, too. Most music craves growth. Yet look at today's country music, which if anything is stifled as if bound by rope. As country sold more and more to more and more people, businessmen took charge and began controlling it like a business.

Del McCoury recently said that his one fear of bluegrass growing too big is that it could become watered down. Skaggs agrees, somewhat.

"I think anything can get too big," Skaggs said. "I think bluegrass has got a long way to go before it gets too big. I think it could get too big when you start seeing bluegrass in movies and on television all the time and you start getting bluegrass music television. I cannot imagine that it could happen. I like the fact that there's so much diversity in bluegrass music."

And that, he says, is in part why his new album is titled "History of the Future." "I've always had one foot in the past, yet one foot in the future."

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