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Skaggs carries on the Big Mon's tradition

By 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."

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