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Skaggs rules bluegrass

By Brian Wahlert, November 1997

Ricky Skaggs says in the liner notes for his latest country album, "Life Is a Journey," "When I came to Nashville in 1980, country music had made a hard swing to the pop side. The Urban Cowboy look and sound was very hip at the time. I tried to get a record deal, but was told that I was way too country. I was asked, 'That bluegrass stuff, what is that?' Well here we are again, country has swung to the pop side once more, and here I am, way too country, and 'that bluegrass stuff, what is that?'"

Indeed, thanks to pop-country artists like Shania Twain, LeAnn Rimes and Tim McGraw, country has moved back to the pop side, and as a result, it's easy to forget the importance of the new traditionalist movement and, ultimately, Ricky Skaggs.

For before hat acts like Clint Black and Garth Brooks started the country explosion of the early Nineties, before Randy Travis increased country's visibility in the late Eighties, before the Judds and John Anderson and George Strait started their recording careers in the early Eighties, one man brought traditional acoustic sounds back to the forefront in country music: Ricky Skaggs.

Music has come full circle for Skaggs, having just released "Bluegrass Rules," his first all bluegrass disc in 15 years.

"It's just the state of affairs where we are right now with country radio, and it's no slam to them. I'm 43 years old, and I think when people get past 40, there's something that changes at country radio for them."

A fantastic multi-instrumentalist and tenor, Skaggs began his professional career at age seven.

By 15, he and friend Keith Whitley sufficiently impressed their hero Ralph Stanley that he invited them to play and sing with his Clinch Mountain Boys.

Through the Seventies, Skaggs played in one now-legendary bluegrass band after another: the Country Gentlemen, J.D. Crowe and the New South, which at one point included Vince Gill, and Skaggs's own band Boone Creek.

Finally, he took Rodney Crowell's place in Emmylou Harris's Hot Band, and that's where he begins the story of how, many would say, he came to save country music from the cesspool of pop schlock dominating the airwaves at the time.

"I went there and really took my mandolin, my fiddle, the banjo, took all those things with me when I went to that group and helped bring some more acoustic sounds, more bluegrass, more mountain, more Appalachian kind of sounds to Emmylou's sound at that time," he says.

"We worked on two pretty much new albums: 'Light of the Stable,' which was the Christmas album that she did, which is a wonderful album, and then 'Roses in the Snow,' which is more of an acoustic, kind of a bluegrassy type approach to her music, which to me is one of the best albums that she ever did."

Harris's decision to record a bluegrass album was almost unheard of at the time, but the record became her fastest to go gold.

Skaggs soon went off on his own and recorded an album on independent Sugar Hill Records before CBS decided to take a chance on his innovative sound.

Skaggs's first CBS single and a theme song of sorts for the new traditionalist movement, "Don't Get Above Your Raisin'," hit the charts in May 1981, and less than a year later, Skaggs reached number one with "Crying My Heart Out Over You."

Skaggs describes that record as "an old Flatt & Scruggs song which I took and kind of added a country beat to and country sounds. We had the bluegrass-style harmonies and the twin fiddles and stuff like that of Bill Monroe, but we had steel guitar and the drums and a piano as a rhythm section. So, it's a real combination of the two kinds of music fusing together and making kind of a new sound for Nashville. It was much more of a traditional approach, but it had those bluegrass-style harmonies that people just really seemed to like."

Within a year, George Strait, John Anderson, and Reba McEntire all had their first number-one hits, and together, these artists would pull country music out of the Urban Cowboy era.

"I think George was really hitting on a real Texas thing, a Bob Wills kind of thing and becoming the king of the West like Wills was in the Forties," Skaggs recalls. "And Bill Monroe, I was trying to pick up on a lot of the stuff he had been doing in the late Forties through the Sixties - so I was kind of handling the thing in the East. And then of course, Reba was just a female that was really taking off after Barbara Mandrell. So that's kind of the way it was there for a long time, and we all three won awards and really had a good run."

Certainly one of Skaggs' biggest honors came in 1982 when he became the youngest member of the Grand Ole Opry.

"After I got my record deal with CBS in '81 and started making a name and everything, Mr. (Hal) Durham wanted to take me to lunch one day. He said, 'I want to know one thing. What would it be like of all the awards you've won and all the number-one records that you've had, what would it be like to be a member of the Opry?' And I just, man" - Skaggs kind of stutters here as if hit once again by the overwhelming awe he must have felt at the time - "'It would be everything.' My kids would say, 'It'd be da bomb,'" he says with a laugh.

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