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Bluegrass still rules with Ricky Skaggs

By Rick Bell, March 2003

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Jimmy Mills has become one of the most respected banjo player in the world. The IBMA honored Mills as its banjo player of the year in 1999, 2000 and 2001.

"He's an Earl Scruggs-type picker who has the three T's - tone, twang and taste," Skaggs says. "His playing is so good and so well-rounded."

The live album proved to be a farewell of sorts for fiddler Bobby Hicks, an outstanding solo performer and a member of Skaggs' bands for two decades. Hicks, honored recently by the Alabama World Fiddler's Hall of Fame, retired shortly after taping the Charleston show in November. Skaggs says at 70 years old, Hicks retired just because it was time to slow down.

"Bobby left the group after 21 years," Skaggs says. "He'll be missed, but Andy should do fine. Since he plays mandolin too, I'll be able to play a little more guitar."

Skaggs says a live album doesn't happen by just turning on the mike and letting the tape roll. The trick comes in making sound that way.

"The studio can get a little sterile. These guys deserve to go out on the edge, but a live album is tough to do," he says. "There are a few rough edges because you sometimes play outside of yourself. But they're great. It would be very boring to just watch Ricky play. They're my employees and bandmates, but they're also my partners. I know the rhythm's gonna be there, I know Jimmy's there to do his solo. These guys are a joy to work with."

Skaggs knows he's taking a risk by purposely leaving hit songs like "Country Boy," "Highway 40 Blues," "Heartbroke" and "Waitin' for the Sun to Shine" off the live album.

But there may be some method to his madness. First and perhaps foremost, Skaggs continues to emphasize his bluegrass roots. Though he never completely left it even as a member of Harris' Hot Band or during his lengthy career as a solo country artist, he opened himself up to criticism in the bluegrass community.

Skaggs noted in a previous interview that his former boss, Ralph Stanley, once said, "Yeah, I'm proud of Ricky, He's done good, but...he'll come back. I know he will. He loves this music. He'll be back, he's just out there making a name for himself, and he'll come back and when he does, he'll do a lot for bluegrass."

So like some sort of modern-day prophet, Stanley's prediction indeed came true. Skaggs has returned to the bluegrass fold that brought his first taste of recognition. It was a trip, of course, that started as Skaggs stood alongside Keith Whitley in the early 1970s as part of Stanley's Clinch Mountain Boys.

Along the way, he played with the Country Gentlemen and in 1975 performed on the milestone bluegrass album J.D. Crowe and the New South, which also included the likes of guitarist Tony Rice and Dobro player Jerry Douglas as band members. Skaggs followed with his own band, Boone Creek, then took a permanent spot in Harris' Hot Band when Rodney Crowell branched into his own solo career.

That two-year stint led to his solo debut on the Sugar Hill label, which helped launch his career on Epic Records. Despite the urban cowboy madness at the time, Skaggs proved there was an audience ready and willing to return to country's roots. It was quite simple, really. Skaggs took everything he'd learned to that point and packaged it.

It's quite possible that in the not too distant future, Skaggs may revisit some of his old hits.

"I'm gonna do an album someday - I hope it's soon - of some of my old songs," Skaggs says. "For lack of a better title, I'd call it 'what I meant to say.' I'd like to redo my country hits in bluegrass style, try to do acoustic versions. Really, you pull the drums, electric guitar and steel out, and you have bluegrass."

Such a project - like any project, for an indie label, comes with a risk. It was much the same call with the new live album, Skaggs said.

"Money is tight," Skaggs says. "I have 21 employees counting on me as a small businessman. To offer fans a CD of live remakes would be cheating them. I knew people wanted to hear some of them, but we wanted to do new songs people can't buy somewhere else."

With Lyric Street records as a partner - the major label repackaged and brought "Big Mon," a tribute to the late Bill Monroe, to a wider audience. And there are other opportunities to spread the gospel of bluegrass. If there are enough requests for it, Skaggs may release "A Simple Life," the Harley Allen song off the live album, as a single.

"What do you think?" Skaggs asks. "The live version is great. People hoot and holler for it. If they like the song, I'd be willing to do a studio version to go out on radio."

Until that time comes, Skaggs has a spring and summer filled with touring. And he's currently wrapping up production on several projects, including "The Three Pickers: The Legends of Bluegrass," a special taped featuring Skaggs, Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs for PBS that will be released on Rounder Records.

"It's 95 percent finished," Skaggs says of the disc. When asked how they sound, Skaggs laughs and says, "Well they're 80; they don't play like they did when they were 50. I hope to play that well when I'm 80."

Skaggs said he would have preferred it was the Four Pickers.

"I would have liked it better if we'd had Bill Monroe with us," he says. "But we're a little late for that. Still, it's a real honor to stand onstage and perform with Doc and Earl."

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