Ricky Skaggs shows he's a man of few words

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."

It's also a rare occasion when Skaggs doesn't sing - on an awards show or otherwise. "Instrumentals" came as a welcome relief.

"It was a blessing not doing vocals," Skaggs says. "With vocals, I always put off until last and do the instruments - this, that and any other thing I can. I know where I want the fiddle break or a banjo solo."

"It was nice not having to grunt over the vocals. My sinuses are bothering me today. Nashville is not a great place to be a singer. The pollen here can really mess with you."

Yet, recording an album of purely instrumental cuts was not some revelation that manifested itself during a lengthy bout with allergies. Some of the songs had been rattling around in Skaggs' brain - or more accurately, in his mandolin case - since the mid-1990s.

"Some of these I've had since 1996 or '97," he says. "I've been saving them for a special time."

"Instrumentals" also will go down as Skaggs' most prolific album. "I never wrote a whole album before," says Skaggs, who's never quite developed the reputation as a songwriter - about the only skill that's missing from his repertoire. "I've got another 5 or 10 songs left."

It's unlikely the remaining songs will be left only to memory. Many of his ideas - little runs or chord progressions - are committed to a Sony music stick that Skaggs carries with him at all times.

"The older I get, the more I forget," he says. "If I get a great lick in mind, I need to record it right away. If I don't get it recorded, it'll slip away on me."

"I keep the memory stick in my mandolin case. A riff, chorus, that's all I'll play and come back to it later. Like with 'Crossing the Briney.' It had five or six parts. I didn't write it all at one time. I'd have part A, B, C and D, and I'd work on some right away, then maybe come back a week later."

And, for someone who not only records for a small, independent label, but also is the owner, expenses is a very real issue. Yet, there's a certain leeway he can take with creativity that never existed during his days on Epic or Atlantic. Skaggs pointed out that all too often, it was, what's the bottom line here? "I've never gotten to do an instrumental album on a major label," he says. "I'd get an idea and be inspired, but it was always, 'Can we sell enough records to pay for this?' " It was the same song and dance with gospel, he says. Skaggs, a devout Christian, no doubt had the chops to pull off a successful gospel record. But again, there was no support from his label. "I'd wanted to do a gospel album for a long time," he says. "It wasn't until I had my own label that I was able to record 'Soldier of the Cross.' Sony would always say, 'Sorry,' and give me all kinds of excuses."

There was no rigid preparation for "Instrumentals," no salting himself away for hours on end, practicing this lick or that chord progression, Skaggs said.

"As far as preparing, there were a few songs we'd play at soundchecks," he says. "Those I had in my head, I'd say, 'This is the way they go.' (Bassist) Mark (Fain) would write out the chart, then I'd listen and fine-tune it. By not doing vocals, I could spend more time on the music."

"Most of the mandolin is live," he says. "There are a few hickeys here and there. I let a mistake or two go. You can feel the spontaneity. The emotion of the song is there."

Being an acoustic album, one of the hardest things to do for Skaggs was the sequencing - the order of the songs. "With lyrics, it's much easier than an instrumental record, he says. "You don't want too many mandolin intros back to back. I think we did a good job of mixing it up to keep it lively."

Skaggs said it was actually a relatively new listening device made it easier to sequence the album. "The iPod is a wonderful thing," Skaggs said. "I used my iTunes play list to make up sequences."

In fact, Skaggs uses his iPod for more than a work tool. In fact, he's assembled a pretty diverse mix. It's opened up a whole new world of listening for him. "I use it to listen to a lot of stuff," he says. "I use it for work, to review things we'd done that day. An iPod is a lot easier than duping a cassette or burning a CD. You just load it in."

Skaggs quickly ticked off some names of artists he keeps on his iPod. Sure, there are the usual suspects - Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe and the like. But Skaggs said he also has everything from pop singer Tony Bennett to jazz pianist Keith Jarrett.

"I have all of this different music on there," he says, "like Jascha Heifetz, Isaac Stern and Ravi Shankar. I found out what a fan I am of great music, so I loaded up my iPod."

Work or play, Skaggs is now a dedicated iPod user. "It's such a great tool to use for work," he says. "Quality-wise, it's great. I dump mixes in, and it sounds so much cleaner than a cassette."

And, whether fans know it or not when they download a tune from "Instrumentals" to an iPod for their entertainment, there was one on the other end making the music that much better.

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher • countrystandardtime@gmail.com