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Ricky Skaggs shows he's a man of few words

By Rick Bell, September 2006

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It's also a rare occasion when Skaggs doesn't sing - on an awards show or otherwise. "Instrumentals" came as a welcome relief.

"It was a blessing not doing vocals," Skaggs says. "With vocals, I always put off until last and do the instruments - this, that and any other thing I can. I know where I want the fiddle break or a banjo solo."

"It was nice not having to grunt over the vocals. My sinuses are bothering me today. Nashville is not a great place to be a singer. The pollen here can really mess with you."

Yet, recording an album of purely instrumental cuts was not some revelation that manifested itself during a lengthy bout with allergies. Some of the songs had been rattling around in Skaggs' brain - or more accurately, in his mandolin case - since the mid-1990s.

"Some of these I've had since 1996 or '97," he says. "I've been saving them for a special time."

"Instrumentals" also will go down as Skaggs' most prolific album. "I never wrote a whole album before," says Skaggs, who's never quite developed the reputation as a songwriter - about the only skill that's missing from his repertoire. "I've got another 5 or 10 songs left."

It's unlikely the remaining songs will be left only to memory. Many of his ideas - little runs or chord progressions - are committed to a Sony music stick that Skaggs carries with him at all times.

"The older I get, the more I forget," he says. "If I get a great lick in mind, I need to record it right away. If I don't get it recorded, it'll slip away on me."

"I keep the memory stick in my mandolin case. A riff, chorus, that's all I'll play and come back to it later. Like with 'Crossing the Briney.' It had five or six parts. I didn't write it all at one time. I'd have part A, B, C and D, and I'd work on some right away, then maybe come back a week later."

And, for someone who not only records for a small, independent label, but also is the owner, expenses is a very real issue. Yet, there's a certain leeway he can take with creativity that never existed during his days on Epic or Atlantic. Skaggs pointed out that all too often, it was, what's the bottom line here? "I've never gotten to do an instrumental album on a major label," he says. "I'd get an idea and be inspired, but it was always, 'Can we sell enough records to pay for this?' " It was the same song and dance with gospel, he says. Skaggs, a devout Christian, no doubt had the chops to pull off a successful gospel record. But again, there was no support from his label. "I'd wanted to do a gospel album for a long time," he says. "It wasn't until I had my own label that I was able to record 'Soldier of the Cross.' Sony would always say, 'Sorry,' and give me all kinds of excuses."

There was no rigid preparation for "Instrumentals," no salting himself away for hours on end, practicing this lick or that chord progression, Skaggs said.

"As far as preparing, there were a few songs we'd play at soundchecks," he says. "Those I had in my head, I'd say, 'This is the way they go.' (Bassist) Mark (Fain) would write out the chart, then I'd listen and fine-tune it. By not doing vocals, I could spend more time on the music."

"Most of the mandolin is live," he says. "There are a few hickeys here and there. I let a mistake or two go. You can feel the spontaneity. The emotion of the song is there."

Being an acoustic album, one of the hardest things to do for Skaggs was the sequencing - the order of the songs. "With lyrics, it's much easier than an instrumental record, he says. "You don't want too many mandolin intros back to back. I think we did a good job of mixing it up to keep it lively."

Skaggs said it was actually a relatively new listening device made it easier to sequence the album. "The iPod is a wonderful thing," Skaggs said. "I used my iTunes play list to make up sequences."

In fact, Skaggs uses his iPod for more than a work tool. In fact, he's assembled a pretty diverse mix. It's opened up a whole new world of listening for him. "I use it to listen to a lot of stuff," he says. "I use it for work, to review things we'd done that day. An iPod is a lot easier than duping a cassette or burning a CD. You just load it in."

Skaggs quickly ticked off some names of artists he keeps on his iPod. Sure, there are the usual suspects - Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe and the like. But Skaggs said he also has everything from pop singer Tony Bennett to jazz pianist Keith Jarrett.

"I have all of this different music on there," he says, "like Jascha Heifetz, Isaac Stern and Ravi Shankar. I found out what a fan I am of great music, so I loaded up my iPod."

Work or play, Skaggs is now a dedicated iPod user. "It's such a great tool to use for work," he says. "Quality-wise, it's great. I dump mixes in, and it sounds so much cleaner than a cassette."

And, whether fans know it or not when they download a tune from "Instrumentals" to an iPod for their entertainment, there was one on the other end making the music that much better.

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