Ricky Skaggs - following Mr Monroe's path
When Ricky Skaggs steps onto the Old Fruitmarket stage in Glasgow tomorrow night, it’ll feel for him like he’s bringing bluegrass music home.
So much of what went into the foundations of country music, out of which bluegrass grew, went over to North Carolina, Virginia and Skaggs’ home state, Kentucky, with Scots and Irish settlers that Skaggs still feels a spirit from this side of the Atlantic in the music he plays. You can hear that spirit particularly on his latest album, Instrumentals.
"I never consciously try to write Scottish or Irish sounding tunes; they just seem to come to me. In fact, sometimes I feel that it should only be a generation or two since my family moved over here, rather than the five or six generations that it is," says the one-time Country Music Entertainer of the Year. "The connection’s still strong and I know that Mr Monroe felt the same way."
Mr Monroe – Skaggs always refers to him thus – is of course Bill Monroe, the musician credited with creating bluegrass when he recruited the future guitar and banjo partnership Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs into his classic Bluegrass Boys line-up in the mid 1940s.
Some fifteen years later, a six year old Skaggs was gently propelled towards the stage at a Monroe concert in his hometown of Cordell, Kentucky and invited to sing a song with the great man’s band, accompanying himself on the great man’s mandolin.
It was a defining moment that would eventually lead to Skaggs playing mandolin, fiddle and guitar with bluegrass legends the Stanley Brothers while still in his teens. Later he became the first fiddler to work with Johnny Cash, joined Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band and went on to major success as a country artist, duetting with Ray Charles, selling millions of albums and scoring twelve number one singles in the US country charts during the 1980s.
Things haven’t always run smoothly. His spell with the Stanley Brothers ended when, disillusioned with the long hours and low pay, he took a job with the Virginia Electric Power Company in Washington, DC. He was soon back playing music full-time, though, and his career took an upward trajectory that continued until, in 1991, he was unceremoniously dumped by Columbia Records when sales of his My Father’s Son album disappointed the accountants.
Whatever he felt at the time, the abrupt nature of his treatment has been brushed aside. Mainstream country success gave him a great platform, he says, which he still utilises today and he was able to achieve what he set out to do: bring the tradition that Bill Monroe passed on to him back into country music.
A devout Christian who generally has a Biblical reference to illustrate an experience, Skaggs describes his childhood appearance with Monroe as Samuel anointing David.
"That was like a dream," he says. "I remember the crowd were shouting ‘Let little Ricky Skaggs sing a song.’ Now, I’m not sure Mr Monroe realised just how little this Little Ricky Skaggs was but he’d been hearing people shout for me for about twenty minutes and eventually he said, ‘Okay, let’s have him up there, then.’"
Monroe reached down, helped the youngster up onto the stage and asked what instrument he played.
"When I said ‘mandolin,’ he laughed and took his own mandolin off and adjusted the strap so that it fit onto me. I sang a song and the crowd went wild at this local kid onstage with the big stars. But you know, Mr Monroe could have been an ogre towards me. He didn’t have to have this interruption to his concert but he was willing to share the spotlight and from that moment on he had my admiration for the rest of his life and mine."
Skaggs would never claim that when Monroe died in 1996 - coincidentally the same year that Skaggs came back to bluegrass after further mainstream country work with Atlantic Records - he took his hero’s place as the doyen of bluegrass. However, he does feel that a torch has been handed down to him and as he leads his top notch band, Kentucky Thunder, all over the US, he takes pride in being viewed as an elder statesman of the music.
"There are a lot of young people coming to our shows in the States who want to connect to their roots," he says. "I hear there’s a similar thirst for traditional music in Scotland and it’s great on both counts because that old music still sounds modern today. It’s not a question of reproducing it, you have to keep moving it on but we need to value it because you can’t move towards the future if you don’t know the past."
From The Herald, July 20, 2007.