Skaggs rules bluegrass

Brian Wahlert, November 1997

Ricky Skaggs says in the liner notes for his latest country album, "Life Is a Journey," "When I came to Nashville in 1980, country music had made a hard swing to the pop side. The Urban Cowboy look and sound was very hip at the time. I tried to get a record deal, but was told that I was way too country. I was asked, 'That bluegrass stuff, what is that?' Well here we are again, country has swung to the pop side once more, and here I am, way too country, and 'that bluegrass stuff, what is that?'"

Indeed, thanks to pop-country artists like Shania Twain, LeAnn Rimes and Tim McGraw, country has moved back to the pop side, and as a result, it's easy to forget the importance of the new traditionalist movement and, ultimately, Ricky Skaggs.

For before hat acts like Clint Black and Garth Brooks started the country explosion of the early Nineties, before Randy Travis increased country's visibility in the late Eighties, before the Judds and John Anderson and George Strait started their recording careers in the early Eighties, one man brought traditional acoustic sounds back to the forefront in country music: Ricky Skaggs.

Music has come full circle for Skaggs, having just released "Bluegrass Rules," his first all bluegrass disc in 15 years.

"It's just the state of affairs where we are right now with country radio, and it's no slam to them. I'm 43 years old, and I think when people get past 40, there's something that changes at country radio for them."

A fantastic multi-instrumentalist and tenor, Skaggs began his professional career at age seven.

By 15, he and friend Keith Whitley sufficiently impressed their hero Ralph Stanley that he invited them to play and sing with his Clinch Mountain Boys.

Through the Seventies, Skaggs played in one now-legendary bluegrass band after another: the Country Gentlemen, J.D. Crowe and the New South, which at one point included Vince Gill, and Skaggs's own band Boone Creek.

Finally, he took Rodney Crowell's place in Emmylou Harris's Hot Band, and that's where he begins the story of how, many would say, he came to save country music from the cesspool of pop schlock dominating the airwaves at the time.

"I went there and really took my mandolin, my fiddle, the banjo, took all those things with me when I went to that group and helped bring some more acoustic sounds, more bluegrass, more mountain, more Appalachian kind of sounds to Emmylou's sound at that time," he says.

"We worked on two pretty much new albums: 'Light of the Stable,' which was the Christmas album that she did, which is a wonderful album, and then 'Roses in the Snow,' which is more of an acoustic, kind of a bluegrassy type approach to her music, which to me is one of the best albums that she ever did."

Harris's decision to record a bluegrass album was almost unheard of at the time, but the record became her fastest to go gold.

Skaggs soon went off on his own and recorded an album on independent Sugar Hill Records before CBS decided to take a chance on his innovative sound.

Skaggs's first CBS single and a theme song of sorts for the new traditionalist movement, "Don't Get Above Your Raisin'," hit the charts in May 1981, and less than a year later, Skaggs reached number one with "Crying My Heart Out Over You."

Skaggs describes that record as "an old Flatt & Scruggs song which I took and kind of added a country beat to and country sounds. We had the bluegrass-style harmonies and the twin fiddles and stuff like that of Bill Monroe, but we had steel guitar and the drums and a piano as a rhythm section. So, it's a real combination of the two kinds of music fusing together and making kind of a new sound for Nashville. It was much more of a traditional approach, but it had those bluegrass-style harmonies that people just really seemed to like."

Within a year, George Strait, John Anderson, and Reba McEntire all had their first number-one hits, and together, these artists would pull country music out of the Urban Cowboy era.

"I think George was really hitting on a real Texas thing, a Bob Wills kind of thing and becoming the king of the West like Wills was in the Forties," Skaggs recalls. "And Bill Monroe, I was trying to pick up on a lot of the stuff he had been doing in the late Forties through the Sixties - so I was kind of handling the thing in the East. And then of course, Reba was just a female that was really taking off after Barbara Mandrell. So that's kind of the way it was there for a long time, and we all three won awards and really had a good run."

Certainly one of Skaggs' biggest honors came in 1982 when he became the youngest member of the Grand Ole Opry.

"After I got my record deal with CBS in '81 and started making a name and everything, Mr. (Hal) Durham wanted to take me to lunch one day. He said, 'I want to know one thing. What would it be like of all the awards you've won and all the number-one records that you've had, what would it be like to be a member of the Opry?' And I just, man" - Skaggs kind of stutters here as if hit once again by the overwhelming awe he must have felt at the time - "'It would be everything.' My kids would say, 'It'd be da bomb,'" he says with a laugh.

That same year he was the Country Music Association's Male Vocalist of the Year and Horizon Award winner, and in 1985 he won the most coveted award in country music, the CMA Entertainer of the Year.

But soon after that, the well of success began to dry up.

"We really had a great run," Skaggs says, "but you know, new artists came out - Randy Travis and Ricky Van Shelton, people like that - and so after you've had six or seven years of a lot of success, people are kind of ready for a new sound, a new look, and that kind of thing. So we had a pretty tough time from '87, '88, on up through the early Nineties."

After enjoying 10 number one hits in a four-year span, Skaggs has only had two top-10 singles in the past decade. It's certainly not for lack of effort - he's released one good album after another without getting the attention he received earlier in his career.

"'My Father's Son' was my last record for CBS, for Sony, and that was such a good record. I mean, 'Same Old Love' was, man, what a great song, and that really, I think, had a chance. I mean, Tony Brown even told me - here's a man from another record label - he said, 'Man, it's a sin that that song didn't go number one.'"

Another negative was a backlash against Skaggs for bringing his Christianity to the fore, a move apparently turning off some in the industry.

After CBS let him go, he released two unsuccessful albums on Atlantic, including the aforementioned "Life Is a Journey," which came out in late July and Skaggs describes as "the big one that got away, ... one of the best records I've ever done."

"And then it just kind of got to the point where I said, 'Look, there's no way in the world I'll ever be able to figure out country radio.' You've got to do what you do. You can't let success or failure, either one, dictate what you do."

"I believe God made snowflakes different, and every snowflake is different, according to scientists, you know - so to me people are made different, too, and everybody has their own place in this world to add their ingredients, add their special little touch. So I felt like, 'Why would I want to be like somebody else?'"

So what has Skaggs done? He's started his own record label, Skaggs Family Records, and released a fabulous album, "Bluegrass Rules."

And as he talks about it over the phone, one can almost see the twinkle in his eyes and the glow in his face - that's how thrilled he sounds to be able to do the music he loves.

"Getting the freedom to do this record is like a man coming out of jail and having his first meal or something like that out in the free world, so I'm really, really excited about it. It's just so much fun to stand up on stage and play this music again. But being able to play it with such great musicians that I have right now in this band, Kentucky Thunder - these guys are so great, and they have such a respect of music of the past, but they know that we're standing in the present and putting our toe toward the next millenium, taking this music there. It's like a mission for us almost."

"When you don't have freedom to play music that you really love, then I think the fans know it, and certainly the listeners out there, when they see it on your face, they know you're not digging it. Nobody's that good of an actor...I think that's why people are getting so infected with this 'Bluegrass Rules' record. It's because when they see us live, they get infected. It is total smiles, it is total fun, and everybody is just so fired up and so excited about this music, especially the band, that it's infectious. People just say, 'Man, I've never heard bluegrass music before until tonight, and this is really great.' So we're getting a lot of great reviews on it. It just couldn't be better right now."

And just like he was doing 20 years ago, Skaggs is still trying to bring visibility and popularity to bluegrass music in a rock-and-country world.

"We're real excited about the future of it, and I just think that - I've said this for a long time, even before we started playing the music full-time - I really think bluegrass is going to be bigger in the next millenium than it ever was back in the Forties and Fifties when it was in its real heyday."

In a sense, Skaggs has come full circle: from an anonymous picker and singer in several seminal bluegrass bands in the Seventies, to one of country's megastars of the Eighties, back to a relatively obscure bluegrass bandleader in the Nineties.

Unfortunately, Skaggs probably won't be the one to save country music in the Nineties from its current poppish quagmire. It's going to take someone new, someone younger, someone like the baby-faced kid who took the country world by storm in 1981 with his fresh fusion of country and bluegrass instruments and those gorgeous high harmonies. Will the next Ricky Skaggs please stand up?

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