Ricky Skaggs Talks Country, Bluegrass and the Benefits of Grey Hair
Ricky Skaggs was seen as a rebel for switching from country music to bluegrass in the mid-'90s. In reality, he's a picker at heart, and country fans were lucky to have him on the radio during his run of No. 1 hits and country music awards.
Chet Akins says Skaggs "single-handidly" saved country music. The singer is too humble to agree with that, but it's true he picked up where bluegrass pioneer and mentor Bill Monroe left off. Naturally, one wonders who will carry the torch when he reaches the clearing at the end of the pathway. Fortunately, that still seems a long ways off.
Skaggs' new album, 'Country Hits Bluegrass Style,' marries the two halves of his career. Ten of the 14 tracks were No. 1 hits, including fan favorites like 'Cajun Moon,' 'Highway 40 Blues,' and 'Uncle Pen.' He's currently touring in support of the new album, but the Treasure Chest Tour brings a sampling of music old and new for fans of Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder. He tells Taste of Country that touring with younger musicians keeps him sharp. "They challenge me. Every time I'm onstage I know that, when I hear (fiddler) Andy Leftwich rip into a solo I think, 'Oh God, I'm next. I better start praying now.'"
What challenges were there in translating these country hits into bluegrass songs?
Well, after doing these things in the studio for so many years, and then going on the road for so many years -- with the steel guitar coming in at a certain place every time we did the song, or a piano taking this fill every time -- [not having those elements] was a little bit of a challenge.
Had you toyed with some of these songs in live shows before recording this album?
Yeah, it's almost like these albums people do, kind of picking on this one, or picking on Van Halen. So it's kind of like we were picking on Ricky Skaggs, you know, in a tongue in cheek kind of way playing these old hits again. It's really been a blast, especially getting to carry some of my old band mates from my country days back on the road. So it's really been a great summer.
Of all the jobs that make up your career -- songwriting, performing and now mentoring -- is there one that you find most rewarding?
I love all of that, I really do. Sometimes I go down to Belmont University and speak to the music business kids, or just the music department in general. Or I'll go to some of the other colleges and universities in this area and speak to the young kids about music and the importance of being good at your craft and really taking the time that you have to spend with it to be a good singer, to be a good musician and really craft a song.
But so much of that comes with respect. It's hard to teach somebody something if there's not a respect level from the student. But nowadays, I guess with my grey, flowing locks that I have grown over the last three or four years, there's something about that old grey haired gentleman up there talking. He looks like he really knows what he's talking about [laughs].
Of course you could add record label head to your business card as well. When you're looking for young talent, what do you look for?
I really do look for someone that can obviously play their instrument, but I'd rather have someone who is not quite up to par on his instrument but is really willing to be taught, is teachable, has a teachable spirit. A lot of kids that we've auditioned before, it's like, "You're really lucky to have me." That attitude doesn't fare well here.
Is there anyone in mainstream country music that is capable of injecting bluegrass music into the genre like you did in the 1980s?
You know, that group the Band Perry. They're all graduates I think from a bluegrass school up in East Tennessee. Boy they love me, and they respect me so much. I think could probably interject some bluegrass into their music. I think that they try to.
Zac Brown likes the picking, and that part of it. Dierks Bentley, he loves the music and he's probably done a lot for his fans to get turned on to the music. It's always that. It's like Alison Krauss doing something with Robert Plant. That just brings more ears to what she really is all about. I always get these requests for Facebook friends and I look and see what people are listening to. They're always listening to Alison Krauss. She's done a lot to bridge the gap between country and pop and bluegrass.
Watch Ricky Skaggs and Bill Monroe perform 'Uncle Pen'