I first became aware of Ricky Skaggs through Emmylou Harris's album, Roses in the Snow. As I delved deeper in to Bluegrass, I discovered Boone Creek, The Country Gentlemen, J.D. Crowe, and Ralph Stanley, all bands that Ricky Skaggs has been a part of at one time or another. Skaggs comes from a musical family in Eastern Kentucky, and started playing mandolin when he was four. When he was six, he played on stage with Bill Monroe. He joined Ralph Stanley's Clinch Mountain Boys at age fifteen.
In 1981 he came to Nashville and embarked upon a career in country music. He was at the forefront of the New Traditionalist movement and is credited with saving Nashville from Countrypolitian and the Urban Cowboy craze. After Several number-one albums and a shelf full of awards, including Entertainer of the Year, Ricky Skaggs is among the many super talented artists who can't get played on Modern Country Radio. Having been contractually prevented from recording Bluegrass for the last twelve years, Ricky h as recently switched labels to Atlantic and recorded what many consider to be one of the best country album of his career, Life is a Journey. But more importantly, he has started his own record company, Skaggs Family Records, and recorded an excit ing new Bluegrass Album, Bluegrass Rules, with his band Kentucky Thunder. Bluegrass Rules has quickly outdistanced his country album on the Billboard Country Charts and is number one on the Gavin Americana Charts.
I caught up with Ricky Skaggs at a CBN/Toys for Tots benefit in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
Jeff Wall: How ya doing?
Ricky Skaggs: Great! (looking at my tape recorder) Is that working?
Wall: Yeah, I think it's on. I'll just make stuff up if it doesn't work.
Skaggs: [Laughs] Oh great!
Wall: I wanted to ask you a few questions. You've gone back to Bluegrass, after a career in Country music. I keep hearing that there is no money in Bluegrass, that you can starve to death as a Bluegrass performer.
Skaggs: Yes, and that's, you know, like a cliche and it's not necessarily a joke, and it is kind of a joke. We all love it and a lot of people play it whether there's money in it or not. But I'm here to tell you, We're making money. That' s not the reason we came here [Toys for Tots benefit Concert/CBN Network appearance] obviously, not the reason. But, what I did, by coming into Bluegrass, I dropped a bus, I dropped a tractor trailer. And I dropped three musicians and two crew guys from m y organization. So believe me...but we didn't drop our price per date. We can, if we had to. But we haven't had to. I mean, you know, some of the bluegrass promoters have asked us to come for less money because they just can't afford it, and we obviously have a bottom line that we have to make in order to be able to take all the guys and the bus and go, or fly a date, but there's money in it for us. We're making money. And having the record label, we've already recouped all our expenses on the album and it's only been out about a month.
Wall: I love the album!
Skaggs: Well, thank you, I'm really glad. Folks are.. it's amazing. If folks would just...if... once they hear it. It's the preconceived ideas about Bluegrass that keeps people from it. You know, people have ideas already set in concrete in their mind that it's too much of this or too much of that or I heard Bluegrass once and I didn't like it. I really do believe that if the musicians and the music is to a point in quality, you know, to a standard of quality, I really think you can make a living playing it. There's a lot of groups that are out 200 days a year playing Bluegrass, IIIrd Time Out, Lonesome River Band, Del McCoury, Nashville Bluegrass Band, those guys work ALL the time. And Stuart [Duncan] makes a ton of money staying in town. So it's hard for him to go out through the week and it's kind of getting that way with me and the boys. Mark [Fain] does a tremendous amount of sessions and Bryan does a load of sessions as well. Byran gets them to send ADATs to his house and he sits at home and overdubs everything under the sun. When he goes out on the weekends, it's just to get away from the studio and to have fun. I can't pay him enough on the weekends to make what he makes sitting doing sessions. He can work five days a week at his house for the next three months and try to get caught up on all the sessions he's got to do. So there's a tremendous amount of money in that for him. But we're doing this because we love it, but obviously love and bottom line finances are something that, you know, the band would hang in for a while, but everyone would say "Hey, I can't pay my rent this month" but, it's good. We're able to keep going.
We are going to have a slow period here in January, February and March. I'm going to be working in the studio, my plans are -- I haven't sat down with everyone yet, but Vince and I have talked already, and Marty and I talked about it months ago, and I th ink I may of even mentioned it to Alison one time. I know we've talked about it but not lately, and I would need to jog her memory again. But my plans are for the next Skaggs Family record, would be the Opry Bluegrass Band. and it would be Me, Vince, Marty, Alison, Earl Sc ruggs playing some banjo. and we had Roy Huskey Jr. that had played with us before but now, he's not with us. Well just have to get Mark or Billy Linnamen or somebody like that to play bass with us.
Wall: Do you think your country background has helped to draw more people into bluegrass?
Skaggs: Well I really think it has. I didn't make my popularity on Bluegrass. You know Boone Creek was a great band and J.D. Crowe and The New South was a great band but we were local -- well we were regional, not necessarily local, but we had limi ts on how much we had gotten out. When I went with Emmylou my name recognition started growing because of her popularity. After I left her, I put together my country nusic thing. Obviously my heart was to never get out of Bluegrass, but it was to perpetua te it. The popularity in Country has helped because people know my name, but they've also known, if they know anything about me, they've known that my roots and my past were in Bluegrass, but contractually, not being able to do anything with it, to promot e it in it's acoustic rare form, I've not been able to. But with me being able to do the records and try to blend and bring bluegrass along with it like "Highway 40 Blues" and "Uncle Pen", "Don't Get Above Your Raising" and things like that where we had a lot of Bluegrass instrumentation into it, kept the Bluegrass tones and the sounds out there -- but I knew it wasn't Bluegrass and I wasn't trying to fool people into thinking that it was. They'd come up and say "Oh I love your Bluegrass Sounds" And I'd say, "Well, it's not really Bluegrass, let me tell you what real Bluegrass is." But I think it's really helped to have that.
Ralph Stanley told a person one time -- I was at IBMA this year and a woman come up to me and she said "You know, back when you won Entertainer of the Year and you was the hottest thing, I seen Ralph one weekend at a festival and I went up and talked to h im about you and he said 'Yeah, I'm proud of Ricky, He's done good, but... he'll come back.' 'You really think he will?' He said, '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 w hen he does, he'll do a lot for Bluegrass.'" [Laughs] So it's like this prophet of the 20th century here, Ralph Stanley. But he's really right. I always wanted to come back and do this music, So many circumstances were disallowing me to do that.
Wall: I bet the folks at Atlantic and Epic are smacking themselves in the forehead right now.
Skaggs: I know that they are really stocking the shelves on old product, I've been seeing that out there, That will be good for somebody, But we didn't do this to rub anything in anybody's face, But it's almost viewed that way.
Wall: [Laughs] It's almost like you can't win for losing.
Skaggs: [Laughs] I know it, It's like it's almost viewed now that I'm a renegade to Nashville. When I came to Nashville in 1981, the reason that the media jumped on my case and was real behind me and pushing me was because I was the only young arti st that was coming there taking a stand for traditional music and the values of it. And it was like "Oh, here's the underdog. Let's get behind him." Well it's almost like the same deal now. Here is somebody that has come out of country saying "This is eno ugh, I've had enough!" And now I've gotten out and done my own thing with my own record label. It was never really my heart to take that kind of stand and say "OK, If you're not gonna play my record, I don't need you." It was never that attitude. We start ed this record label so that we would have a place to be able to do traditional roots music. There were no labels out there that were really willing to do. I mean Rounder and Sugar Hill always have, but.. I'm 43 years old and I want to be able to have s omething at the end of this thing to say... you know more than just a few awards that's gonna have a half inch of dust on them by then. This was the smartest thing that I have ever done. This is the future for my wife and my children, my grandchildren and it's gonna pay some great dividends having this thing out.
Wall: How much do you see the label growing? I would love to see some of your Ricky Skaggs Picking Parties from Wolf Trap get released. Some of your live stuff.
Skaggs: Well you know we got all that stuff in the can. Sony music owns all that. Maybe we can lease that stuff. Hopefully we can. And we'd like to be able to release some of our other titles as well. But that's not really the focus and the idea f or the label. The main reason for the label was to have a specialty place that we could take groups like The Whites. They're a great example. Disregard the fact that they're my inlaws. It's the fact that this group is so good at what they do. They've got these angelic voices that just blend so well. It's a dad and two daughters. They've got this thing that's so wonderful. It's that cross between Bluegrass and Western and a little bit of early Country. It's just like they are the Carter Family of the 90's . It's groups like that, and Cajun groups, and groups up in Nova Scotia or somewhere like that, that really deserve to be looked at and deserve to have a shot. We're not gonna, well, I don't want to say we're not ever gonna do any of this but, we may have to revert to promoting on Country radio if we had a group that I felt like really had a shot....
But there's a wonderful radio group, Americana. I think that format is going to be one of the hottest growing formats there is because people are really saying enough is enough. There is such a flood of New Country sounds, It's okay to have New Country, b ut if you're gonna have New Country, still have Old Country so that people know where the roots are, know where the music came from and can appreciate it. It's a sin that George Jones, Merle Haggard, Johnny Paycheck and Gene Watson, people like that, don' t have a place at radio. There's not a place for them to be played unless it's Classic Country Saturday or something like that.
Wall: It's funny. You're selling out shows, George Jones is selling out shows, these people are selling out venues. People are comingout to hear them. People are searching for product. What's the problem with getting this and Bluegrass on radio?
Skaggs:I don't know, It's really funny. Places that are playing it, the response is great. Radio is so afraid of losing any kind of ratings, they're afraid of taking a chance on anything anymore and that's the reason for taking the safe way out and playing these [HNC] new artists. Some of these Americana stations are playing Bluegrass. They' re playing "Little Maggie" and they're playing "If I Lose" and things like that from Bluegrass Rules. A lot of public radio stations are playing it, and the independently owned stations. Maybe if we get on enough talk shows and sell enough records, if we had a million seller album, which would be just unbelievable, but it could happen. Even if we sold 500,000 on this Bluegrass album. It would be a miracl e. It would be a tremendous thing to have a traditional, all original Bluegrass album sell that kind of sales . That might open up the door for some airplay. Bluegrass is perceived as being a small market and a small piece of the pie. Maybe it is in compa rison to Garth Brooks, But if you compare Garth Brooks to anybody else in country music, It's a small piece of the pie. When you're talking selling 20 something million albums, that's just out of the ordinary. That just causes the graph to go way off the chart.
Wall: I'm seeing a lot of bluegrass in different stuff. There's the Jam bands like Phish and Leftover Salmon that do stuff that use some aspects of Bluegrass. Nirvana covered "In the Pines," Garth has recorded with Ralph on his new project.
Skaggs: And Bob Dylan is coming in to sing on that.
Wall: [Laughs] I can't imagine Bob doing "Lonesome River." [Singing like a hillbilly Dylan] I sit here alonnnnne.....
Skaggs: [Singing in a Dylan imitation] ...On the banks of the river.... That will be great!
Wall: And I'm wondering how any folks that will draw.
Skaggs: I think It will do well, I really do. And we would love to get on some Phish concerts and open up and show their followers what the real stuff is. That would be great. Hopefully we will be able to do some of that stuff in the next little w hile.
Wall: What do you see for the future of you and bluegrass?
Skaggs: I have no intentions at this point, and have no plans whatsoever to do anything else country with a full country type band. We want to continue doing Bluegrass and acoustic type music. We want to try and promote it. We, the band and I, want to do a gospel quartet type album. We have so many requests for them on the road. We would love to do an instrumental album sometime. We got lots of ideas for albums and stuff so that's going to take me the next three to five years to get that done. We a re trying to look at a television show type situation too, a prime time major show of some sort, with Monday Night concerts being canceled which in a way is fine with me, because now I don't have to fuss with TNN. There was a lot of fussing. I had to get groups that had marquee value, and had the names and stuff like that. My contention was that I would rather have talent than a name. So that's what we really wanted to be able to do. You see, most of the groups that was on my show, not every one o f them, but a lot of the groups that was on my show, you could see them an hour before at another time, It wouldn't be the same night usually, but it could of been the same night, on Gary's show, Prime Time Country. They see the groups so much on CMT, and they see their vi deos an d then they see them here and there, so what is it about the show that would try and make someone really try to tune into it every Monday night? So we want to try and do something where you see Jimmy C. Newman or you see some kid from Cape Breton or some little family group from the state of Washington that's just incredible. So that's not a dead issue, we are really looking for that. We are possibly wanting to do a Bluegrass club in Nashville, So there are a lots of things on the back burner.
Wall: I noticed during tonight's show that it was the instrumentals that really drew people in.
Skaggs: Boy that "Boston Boy" thing just really raised up in intensity!
Wall: I really loved your version of "Get Up John." Both Mr. Bill and Sam Bush would have been impressed with that.
Skaggs: Yeah, we're doing that on Conan [O'Brien] in a couple of weeks. We're gonna do that and like a verse and a chorus of Lonesome River. They want us to sing something. They wanted the singing and they really wanted an instrumental too. So we got four minutes to try and do them both.
Wall: Who are you listening to?
Skaggs: There's a group called the Cores that had a great album, some Irish music. I've been trying to listen to a lot of rootsy type music, you know acoustic stuff, It's amazing, I still catch myself listening to Bluegrass Rules. I think wh en I get tired of it, it will be time to do something else. I like listening to the bass playing, and the banjo playing and Bobby's fiddling, and Bryan's guitar playing. I just enjoy all that.
Wall: Is there anything you would like folks to know about Ricky Skaggs?
Skaggs: I wanted to say something about Bill Monroe. There's definitely been something passed. I'm not saying that I'm trying to run from something, But there is no way in this lifetime that someone could ever take Bill Monroe's place. And I don't want to take his place, but I do want to take my place. I feel like I have a place here in this music and that's the only part that I want to take is my part. Knowing that keeps my feet on the ground and keeps my heart in the right direction. If I was try ing to say that I was the next Bill Monroe, that would be such a wacky thing.
Wall: You would have to fire a whole bunch of people and then get the band out planting in the garden.
Skaggs: [Laughs] Bobby's been there and done that, and he ain't gonna be fixing no fences!
Copyright 1997-1998 by Jeff Wall