As someone who grew up in the land of WCMS, I’m well familiar with the name of Ricky Skaggs. Indeed, I’ve long believed that, more than just about any other artist out there, Skaggs has a name that just screams country and western. (Seriously, just say “Ricky Skaggs” out loud and try to imagine a guy with that name playing any other genre of music. You can’t do it.) As it happens, though, Skaggs has a really extensive musical background, one that’s seen him playing with a remarkable variety of individuals, ranging from Johnny Cash to Phish. I had a chance to chat with Skaggs for The Virginian-Pilot in conjunction with his upcoming appearance at the Sandler Center on November 18th, and although I had to trim things down for the paper, I’ve got the “director’s cut” of the conversation right here for your reading enjoyment.
Unlike a lot of my pieces for the Pilot, this one was less an article than a list of Things You May Not Have Known About Ricky Skaggs. The format was already simple enough, and, as you’ll see, Ricky had so much to say that it came together like nobody’s business.
- At age 7, he appeared on national television with Earl Flatt and Lester Scruggs at the Grand Ole Opry.
“I look back at that now and I think, ‘How in the world did that ever happen?’” said Skaggs. “But we were at the right place at the right time. My dad had me backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, and I don’t really even know how that happened except that he had a way of making friends with people. The backstage guard let us back there if we would ‘be nice and not bother people,’ so we got back there, and I had my mandolin out playing it. People were walking by and stopping and listening, and Earl Scruggs just happened to walk by. He heard me play and asked my dad if he would bring me down for an audition for their television show, which he did, and I made the audition and got on. You can find it on YouTube!”
- At age 15, he and Keith Whitley – also 15 at the time – became members of Ralph Stanley’s band, the Clinch Mountain Boys.
“I was probably 8 or 9 when the Stanley Brothers came through my home town in Kentucky, and we went to see them, got backstage, and met Carter and Ralph,” said Skaggs. “Carter was really nice to me and said, ‘Hey, if you’re gonna be around, we’ll put you on after awhile.’ So I sat backstage and waited, and they called me up and let me come out and play a couple of things with them. I did that a couple of different times within a couple of different years, so I knew Ralph, too.
“Keith Whitley and I went to see Ralph Stanley at a little beer joint over in West Virginia, right across the river from Kentucky where we lived, but Ralph’s bus broke down with a flat tire, so he called the club owner and said he was going to be about an hour late. The club owner had heard that me and Keith were playing and singing together – we were in there with my dad, who took us over there to see Ralph, and Keith’s brother, Dwight, who played banjo – and since we had our instruments in the car, the four of us got up there and played about 45 minutes of music. Ralph comes walking in, he sits down on a bar stool, and listens to us play. The only songs we knew were Stanley Brothers songs, and Ralph was just having a fit, reminiscing. Nobody was bothering him or coming up and asking him for an autograph. I think everybody was just really into the music and into these young kids singing old songs, so they really let Ralph alone. He told me later, ‘You know, that was a very weird experience for me to walk and hear like it was with me and Carter 30 years before that.’
“A month later, they were going to be back in that same little club, so we went back to see them, and Ralph asked us to get up and sing and be their opening act, which we did. And then he asked us to come down, meet his mom, and visit them if we were down in the area around his home, so we did. And then he asked us if we’d go down to North Carolina and do a Stanley Brothers tribute they were going to have at a bluegrass festival in Reidsville, North Carolina. So we went down, and…it was the first time I ever saw hippies. These people were strangely dressed in colorful outfits, and they were up dancing on every song. I’d never seen people dance on gospel songs before, because my dad wouldn’t let us go to Pentecostal churches. That’s where the dancers were: at the Pentecostal churches and the Assemblies of God. But we all were Baptist, so I never got to go. I loved the music, though, from those Pentecostal churches. They had the groove going. But, anyway, we got up with Ralph down there in North Carolina and sang three or four of the old Stanley Brothers hits, like ‘Lonesome River,’ ‘White Dove,’ ‘Angels Are Singing in Heaven Tonight,’ and some of those songs.
“That really is the thing that changed our lives, getting to go to work with Ralph. Had we not got out on the bluegrass circuit at that young age, it might’ve been years before I got out there, but Ralph heard something in us that he wanted to invest his life into, to pour into us. And it served him well, because I think we brought some youth and a future to his music. Eventually, I left the band, and Keith left the band, too, but when Roy Lee Centers, Ralph’s lead singer, got killed, Ralph asked Keith if he would come back and sing and take the lead role. And he did, and he stayed with Ralph probably five or six years after that. So was a good thing for Ralph…and Keith as well.”
- He didn’t have to do much convincing to get bluegrass legend Bill Monroe to do a jig in the video for Skaggs’ “Country Boy.”
“Bill was a dancer,” said Skaggs. “That was one of his things. He used to dance on the WLS Barn Dance, up in Chicago, Illinois, before he was a singer. I mean, he could sing and play, but they didn’t hire him for that. Him and (his brother) Charlie Monroe were dancers, so he’s always loved to dance. When I was six years old, I’d actually gotten to join him on stage and play, but I didn’t really know him that well ‘til years later. He liked my fiddle playing and the fact that I could play old-time fiddle tunes, and I remember playing ‘Sally Goodin’ so long one night that my arm almost fell off. Bill was up dancing with some women, doing the Bill Monroe dance, and, boy, I mean to tell you, he must’ve gone on for ten minutes. He was quite a character.”
- He recorded a bluegrass album with Bruce Hornsby that features a cover of Rick James’ “Super Freak.”
“Bruce and I met at some sort of an American music festival, a Fourth of July thing that was very badly promoted,” said Skaggs. “There were more crew hands and band members backstage than there were people in the audience, but we did the show for the people who were there, and I remember it was me, Don McLean, Judy Collins, and Bruce. This was the mid- to late 1980s, I guess. He and I had both had some hits, and he said, ‘Hey, man, if any of you guys want to come out and jam, we’re into having guests come out, so if there’s anything you hear you’d like to play on, just feel free to walk out there anytime.’ So when they played ‘Mandolin Rain,’ I brought out my fiddle, and the guy I had with me who played banjo, he jumped out there, too, and we had a good time.
“I was hosting a television show in Nashville – we shot live from the Ryman (Auditorium) – and I remember we had Bruce on as a guest probably in about ’91 or ’92. He came out and did some songs with us, and it seemed like every time we got together we just had a ball. We loved playing music with each other, and we just developed a great admiration for each other musically. When Mr. Monroe passed away in ’96, I gave the bluegrass community a year to do their tribute albums and that kind of thing, and I then I came out and…I really wanted to get the people that weren’t in bluegrass. I wanted to get, like, the Dixie Chicks and John Fogerty and Charlie Daniels, people like that, who loved Mr. Monroe but weren’t necessarily in the bluegrass business, to kind of do their tribute as well. It was a really great record. I had Bruce come in on that, and it happened and was over with so quick that we looked at each other and I said, ‘Man, we need to do a whole record together sometime!’ And he said, ‘Man, anytime you’re ready, I’d love to do that!’
“I guess it was a couple of years after that that we got on the phone and started talking serious about doing a record. And we did one, but then the tour that followed for a couple of years after that was just astounding. I mean, the music on the road was incredible. I think we recorded about 18 shows, and we’ve gone through those recordings and found some just unbelievable tracks that we did while we were on the road. We’re gonna put those on a record here in the next couple of years and put ‘em out, then probably do another tour. I love playing with Bruce. He and his wife Kathy are just good people, and he and I just had a great time and want to do more work together. He’s just a fantastic musician, singer, and songwriter.
“There was a friend of Bruce’s that used to always find some really heavy pop song and then sing it bluegrass, just as a joke. And he did Rick James’ ‘Super Freak’ one time, and Bruce heard it and said, ‘Man, I’ve got to do this song sometime!’ So when we got the idea to do the bluegrass record, Bruce said, ‘We’ve got to do ‘Super Freak,’ and he started playing it. I thought he was teasing. I really did. I thought he was kidding. He said, ‘No, man, I’m serious!’ So we worked on it a little bit, and…it was crazy. The crowds love it every when we’re on the road. Especially his crowd. My crowd wouldn’t know Rick James so much, but Bruce’s crowd does.”
- He recorded a bluegrass version of “Old Enough” with the Raconteurs.
“I got a phone call from Jack (White) one day, who I’d met out at the Grand Ole Opry one night,” said Skaggs. “He and his wife had come out when they first moved to town, to Nashville, and they were just out visiting. They had made friends with quite a few people out there, like Porter Waggoner, and, of course, he produced an album for Loretta Lynn, so he was very well known with the Grand Ole Opry crowd. But we just hit it off. We got to talking about music and studio equipment – he’s a big studio and equipment hog like I am, with old microphones and vintage gear – so he called me one day after we’d exchanged phone numbers, and he asked if I’d be interested in coming and doing a video project. I didn’t know exactly what that was about, but once he told me what song he wanted me to play, I listened to the song and…I didn’t hear any mandolin on it, so I learned it on the fiddle! I thought they were going to want me to play fiddle, but I called back a few days later and said, “Well, I learned this part on the fiddle,” and he said, “No, no, no, I’ve got a guy who’s gonna play fiddle. I want you to play mandolin.” So, anyway, the only time they could cut it and I could cut it…we were both so busy that I think I only had three hours to work on it, so I got in at nine and I had to be out by twelve ‘cause I had a thing I had to get to. But it was a great time, we had a ball doing it, and I’d love to do some more music with them. I thought it was a fun project. A lot of young kids who listened to it really got turned onto bluegrass, some of whom I think may not have ever given it a chance otherwise.
- As host of The Nashville Network’s Monday Night Concerts at the Ryman, he regularly offered up performances by classic country singers, often bringing together artists from different musical genres…
“Jerry Lee Lewis was on with us one night,” said Skaggs. “That was very, very memorable, as was Kris Kristofferson. The Elvis Costello / George Jones show was very cool, and when we had Michael McDonald and Wynonna on together, that was a great show. Anne Murray was on once. Graham Nash came on with Kathy Mattea, and that was fun. Don Gibson was on one night, and that was really awesome. He came out and did ‘Oh Lonesome Me’ and a bunch of his hits. I remember we had Leon Russell come out, and we did ‘Jumping Jack Flash,’ and I played mandolin on that and sang with him. Talk about a fun show. We just had some really great, different artists, and if I could find a network that really would support something like that, I’d love to do that kind of a show again. I really, really would. I just think we could use some really great live music. You don’t see shows like that very much on TV anymore.”
- …and if he had his druthers, he’d be doing a TV show like that right now.
“We’ve thought about a web series, if we could find a way that it could make some money and pay for itself,” said Skaggs. “I think we eventually will. Web broadcasting is still about five years too early, I think. Everybody’s seeing the technology, but we’ve got to get the bandwidth down. It’s coming down where we can get more bandwidth for cheaper money and better quality of sound and visuals through computers and television, with all the internet TVs being made. I think it definitely is the way of the future, just like the internet was earlier. I think it’s definitely going to be a great way to do it, and we’ve got a great studio where we’ve been thinking about getting a Live from Skaggs’ Place kind of thing going from there. We’ve got a lot of people we could sign up for it, that’s for sure.”