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Skaggs carries on the Big Mon's tradition

By Tom Netherland, October 2001

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No one will ever say that about Skaggs' ambitiously titled "History of the Future." From Carter Stanley's "The Old Home," traditional toe-tapper "Shady Grove" and a re-working of his own "One Way Track," Skaggs' latest is wracked with body and soul.

Bear in mind, though, that Skaggs does not live like some relic, both feet floored in the past. For instance, with his newly-composed instrumental "Road to Spencer," Skaggs melds American bluegrass with Celtic sounds from across the Atlantic. In that he's paired two elements from the past, resulting in a song that's wholly contemporary.

"It's a part of those ancient tones that (Monroe) used to talk about," Skaggs says. "It really is that bridge of Celtic music and American bluegrass music, that joining of two styles of music. That's what 'History of the Future' is all about. Just that title. I've always had my left foot in traditional music with people like Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs and the Stanleys, but my right foot has always been into trying to move ahead and seek out new songs and seek out new musicians and try to keep pushing forward with the music, yet still respecting where the music came from."

Indeed, Mr. Monroe, if you're by chance looking down upon these words, rest easy. Your baby rocks with the gentle breezes of careful hands at work, crafty hands that handle with care as if your music were some fragile child - which it isn't.

See, there's a genuine want for the real thing. That buck-dance worthy bluegrass that Elvis loved, that mule-kicking sound that wove its way through hills and hollers from East Kentucky, down through West Virginia, southwest Virginia and East Tennessee, too.

"That's true. It's all over bluegrass," Skaggs says. "It's all about tradition and respecting elders and carrying on a pattern that was laid down for us. Mr. Monroe's not been away from us but for five years, but you get to thinking about what all has happened since his passing, and bluegrass has grown by leaps and bounds. It's probably more popular now than it ever was in the 1940's and early '50's. More popular than when Flatt & Scruggs took it to Carnegie Hall, more popular than when Bill Monroe took it to Berkeley. It's a thriving music."

And among the music's circles, Ricky Skaggs is its ring leader. Call him Monroe's man. Like Monroe, Skaggs picks a couple of vintage Gibson F-5 mandolins, valuable and rare Lloyd Loar models fully capable of conveying the ancient tones of which he often speaks.

"(Monroe's music) had a drive. It had expression. Just the fact that Bill Monroe leaned in and mashed on it, he gave it all he had, every time. It was like trying to put a 20-pound pig in a 10-pound sack. They weren't up there trying to sing pretty love ballads. It had the grit and fire in it, and I think that's what the rock and rollers liked."

Rock and rollers may or may not get into Skaggs' "History of the Future," but they'd be hard pressed to find another album with as much drive, grit and fire. Take the set-closing "Rollin' My Sweet Baby's Arms." As tricky a song to pull off as is "Blue Moon of Kentucky," mostly because it's been covered to death already.

Skaggs knows that, yet unlike most of those who have bravely ventured to record Flatt & Scruggs classic, he came fully armed with his capable band, Kentucky Thunder. Once completed, he played the song for Earl Scruggs, whose rapid-fire banjo drove the original like a scalded dog on a coon's trail.

"He absolutely loved it," Skaggs says. "Earl sat there and smiled real big when he heard our version. That made me feel like I'd done it right."

Indeed. Yet as Skaggs and other bluegrassers make better and better music, logic leads one to conclude that its audience will grow, too. Most music craves growth. Yet look at today's country music, which if anything is stifled as if bound by rope. As country sold more and more to more and more people, businessmen took charge and began controlling it like a business.

Del McCoury recently said that his one fear of bluegrass growing too big is that it could become watered down. Skaggs agrees, somewhat.

"I think anything can get too big," Skaggs said. "I think bluegrass has got a long way to go before it gets too big. I think it could get too big when you start seeing bluegrass in movies and on television all the time and you start getting bluegrass music television. I cannot imagine that it could happen. I like the fact that there's so much diversity in bluegrass music."

And that, he says, is in part why his new album is titled "History of the Future." "I've always had one foot in the past, yet one foot in the future."

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