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Bluegrass still rules with Ricky Skaggs

By 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.

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