Sign up for newsletter
 

Skaggs plays ancient tones for the new millennium

By George Hauenstein, March 1999

Ricky Skaggs has come full-circle these days. And it's something that suits him just fine. He's back playing bluegrass again full-time. As he proudly boasts, "we've come back to our (musical) roots."

His bookings are up. His last two records have met with tremendous response from fans and critics alike. His band is one of the best in the business, and with his new record company, Cieli, which has signed some of the nation's top bluegrass acts, he seems poised to make bluegrass music as strong as its ever been, heading into a new millennium.

Skaggs, who just released his own "Ancient Tomes," says the "move back to bluegrass is the right move....I have no desire to go electric again."

He says he "feels more creativity now," and the "passion that moves me is bluegrass and its acoustic drive."

"Always surprised at how well received it is," Skaggs says, "bluegrass is here to stay."

The Kentucky native says the "genre deserves recognition," and that he is "trying to change the attitude of what bluegrass is and what it can be."

Skaggs' musical career began as a teenager, when he went to work with bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley as a member of Stanley's Clinch Mountain Boys along with friend Keith Whitley.

Skaggs, 44, later toured with other major bluegrass groups of the 1970's, including the Country Gentleman, J.D. Crowe and the New South, and Boone Creek. Later he helped anchor Emmylou Harris' Hot Band.

From there he launched a very successful solo country music career that included numerous Top 10 singles including, "I Don't Care," "Don't Cheat In Our Hometown" and "Country Boy."

But even when he was riding high in Nashville, he always felt a need to be true to the tradition of his roots. Several early hits, "Don't Get Above Your Raisin'," "Uncle Pen," "Can't You Hear Me Calling" and "Wheel Hoss" were actually bluegrass tunes updated and played on country instruments.

His live shows featured lots of fancy picking on electric and acoustic instruments, including "bluegrass instruments" like, banjo, fiddle and mandolin.

Life atop the charts proved a challenge. Touring kept him away from home a lot, away from his wife and from his children at a key time in their young lives.

"I thought I had a career, but my career had me," Skaggs says.

Then there were the creative demands, the demands to make a product that would be commercially popular and meet the demands of country radio. "The music business is a beast...they might have had me as an appetizer, but not as a full course meal," he says.

During the late 1980's and early '90's, the hit singles became fewer and fewer. He was dropped by Columbia and re-surfaced on Atlantic. He continued to tour and make regular appearances on the Grand Ole Opry, of which he's been a member for close to 20 years.

In 1997, with the permission of Atlantic, Skaggs recorded and released, "Bluegrass Rules," an all-bluegrass effort, featuring his own band, Kentucky Thunder on his label, Skaggs Family. The self-financed album pays tribute to the musical genre and his heroes, with straight-ahead interpretations of classics by Monroe, the Stanley Brothers and Flatt and Scruggs.

"Bluegrass Rules" sold more than 150,000 copies. In February, Skaggs won a Grammy for best bluegrass album. One of the ironic nominees included "Clinch Mountain Country" by Skaggs' old boss, Ralph Stanley and an all-star cast that included Skaggs himself.

Shortly after the release of "Bluegrass Rules," Skaggs released his second, and final, country album for Atlantic, "Life's a Journey." Though to his liking creatively, it did poorly at the cash box, and he was dropped.

Despite the ups and downs that his country music career has seen, Skaggs has few regrets, "Everything from 'Sweet Temptation'(his first solo album) forward has been a progression. I'm proud of every one of 'em. They were well produced and well recorded."

Earlier this year, Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder released their second bluegrass album, "Ancient Tones," picking up where its predecessor left off. With it, Skaggs says he "stays true to the music, but also mixes in some new sounds."

He says his mission is to "draw attention to the music, not to ourselves." Skaggs selected "Ancient Tones" as the title because he feels so strongly about "bringing the past forward," and that traditional bluegrass deserves to be heard by "brand new folks who are willing to hear it." He is pleased at how fans, particularly younger fans, have reacted to his devotion to playing bluegrass, "Every review, every critic...everybody...is in our camp."

Forming his own record company - Cieli (for non-Skaggs family bluegrass albums) - was something Skaggs was very excited about. It provided him with the best opportunity to not only "honor the music" that he grew up with, but also to bring it to a wider audience.

From a business standpoint, Skaggs says he "wanted ownership...and a majority of sale" of the product.

The passion and energy that Skaggs felt from recording his own records led him to expand his label to include other top bluegrass and roots music acts.

"I had a desire and creativity to work with a group or artist besides myself."

The list of artists includes the Del McCoury Band. "I was talking to Ronnie (McCoury - Del's son and mandolin player) one day...and he said they were disillusioned and upset with their current situation....and if we could ever do anything for them, they'd love to talk." They ended up working out a management and a record deal.

"It's all worked out wonderful," says Skaggs. The McCoury Band album, "The Family," was released in February. Bluegrass bands, Blue Highway and the Gibson Bothers are slated to release Cieli CDs later this year.

Proving that the label name, Skaggs Family, is no fluke, Skaggs says there are even plans for the Whites to record an album. The Whites include Skaggs' wife Sharon, father-in-law, Buck and sister-in-law, Cheryl.

"They got written off and burned by the business," and as a result, have been without a record deal for some time, according to Skaggs. Hie hopes he can help the acts "get to the next level."

Skaggs, a fundamentalist Christian, credits God with his good fortune. "Every good thing that happens comes from God."

Good things do seem to be coming his way again. For him, bluegrass music really is "America's root music." He uses festival and concert appearances, as well as regular stints on the Grand Ole Opry to increase the music's fan base, while "preserving that high lonesome sound and never going too far away from it."

Armed with a wealth of musical experiences and a greater control of his future, Skaggs seems more than content to carry the musical torch that Bill Monroe and his other musical forefathers have passed on. As he says, "we are very grateful to be able to play this music because the music deserves honor."