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Kentucky Traveler: My Life In Music

By Ricky Skaggs with Eddie Dean

Dey Street Books, 352 pages, $16.99 paperback reissue

Reviewed by Fred Smith, May 2015

Find it on Amazon

Ricky Skaggs has lived a life of music, and he's not done yet. Most folks would be proud of having accomplished in their lifetime what he does in a year. Skaggs decided a few years ago to write about how he got to this point, and the work is better than most celebrity "as told to" books. "Kentucky Traveler" is not a work of hagiography, nor does it settle scores. This is unfortunate, since he probably has a few.

Skaggs is a killer mandolinist (or fiddle player or guitarist), who likes his Lloyd Loar model F5 Gibson quite a bit. He appeared on stage at age seven with Flatt and Scruggs, and you can look it up on You Tube, with the little feller singing "Ruby" as if his life depended on it. Which it did, in a sense. Skaggs tells his mountain music origin story with love, with emphasis on his family members who encouraged him.

After establishing himself as a player in the 1970's with The Country Gentlemen, J.D. Crowe's New South, Emmylou Harris' Hot Band and the progressive bluegrass band Boone Creek, Skaggs burst on the country music scene with great energy and fanfare in the early 1980's. He was the Next Big Thing, a country boy with serious instrumental and songwriting chops with enough bluegrass street cred to make people think they were seeing the next George Jones.

And here's where "Kentucky Traveler" gets a bit sketchy. Was Skaggs swallowed by The Big Music Money Machine? Probably. How did he fight back? Not clear. His playing and songwriting collaborator Keith Whitely is a central figure in this stage of the narrative, but Whitely spun seriously into the ditch with drinking problems that led to his death in 1989.

Skaggs' fondness for Whitely is manifest; his loss is felt to this day. But, the reader doesn't get a very clear sense whether Skaggs battled the same demons as his running mate. We learn of a marriage that didn't work out and thinly-described disagreements with producers and record company trolls. Maybe that will be in the score-setting book.

Thankfully, from Skaggs' telling, he embraced The Lord, and met Sharon White (of The Whites), and things changed. He rid himself of record company entanglements and after a fashion, went independent with Skaggs Family Records. He tours with the damnedest bluegrass band you ever saw, Kentucky Thunder (think of 8-10 killer instrumentalists all in a line on a stage, each with his own mike). Skaggs fronts the whole thing with great vigor.

"Kentucky Traveler" describes Skaggs' devotion to the Grand Ole' Opry (and, of course, the old Ryman Auditorium). To be fair, as the years go on, Skaggs has grown into the role once played by Roy Acuff, as the keeper of the Opry flame. How this explains Old Crow Medicine Show becoming a part of the Opry is not clear, but everyone has a cross to bear.

So, "Kentucky Traveler" is a mid-career report on The State of Ricky. Things, it turns out, are pretty good. But the report is patchy. What of those demons? What does he think of his contemporaries? And what of his legendary collaborations? What of joining with (of all people) Jack White and Ashley Monroe on an epic bluegrass cover of The Raconteurs' "Old Enough"? You can only find it on YouTube and as a digital single. The man playing the Loar with White has some stories to tell, but "Kentucky Traveler" doesn't tell them.