Ricky Skaggs Takes Control

Ricky Skaggs and his band, Kentucky Thunder, visit CMT Most Wanted Live Saturday (April 12) at 7 p.m. ET/PT. Later that night, they’ll be featured on Grand Ole Opry Live airing on CMT at 8 p.m. ET/PT.

Ricky Skaggs doesn’t compare his band to Bill Monroe ’s Bluegrass Boys or Flatt & Scruggs ’ Foggy Mountain Boys. Asked to define Kentucky Thunder’s greatest strength, he mentions another well-known group.

“It’s almost like a Rolling Stones acoustic band,” Skaggs tells CMT.com. “It’s like when Mick walks in there, and Keith hits that old Telecaster on one knee. And then Charlie Watts comes in with that little high-hat thing he does. There’s just a groove that they hit that no one else has. When you hear it, you say, ‘That’s why I love rock ‘n’ roll.’

“They’re old now, but there’s just a groove that they still hit. The Beatles had their thing. They were such great singers, and George was such a great guitar player, but they never had a rock ‘n’ roll, in-your-face kind of groove. And the Stones just had this groove that was so slick and slimy. I feel like that with Kentucky Thunder. I feel like we can go out and just fall into a rhythmic feel that’s really cool … yet we can play the gospel songs where we want to be so subtle. … That’s the kind of band I love having.”

Skaggs captured the groove — and the energy — when he and Kentucky Thunder recorded their new concert CD, Live at the Charleston Music Hall. “This live album is an example of what we do every night,” Skaggs says. “Everybody wants to play their best every night. There’s no sloughs in the band.”

The CD highlights the musicians’ virtuosity, but it also showcases Skaggs’ vision as a bandleader. Skaggs himself learned from some of the best. After he worked with J.D. Crowe & the New South in the ‘70s, Skaggs went on to play in Ralph Stanley ’s Clinch Mountain Boys and Emmylou Harris ’ Hot Band.

“I think a great bandleader is one who gives to his band,” he says. “I don’t mean ‘give’ in the areas of finances all the time but gives of himself and doesn’t want to take all the limelight. I think Emmylou was that way. It was always Emmylou Harris and the Hot Band. It was never just Emmylou Harris when they introduced us.

“A leader is one who leads through humility and example. Ralph was a great teacher. He was always one that would let me know if I was getting a little too far from the melody on my solos. He’d say, ‘Now bring her on back here a little bit. You know what I’m talking about, now don’t you? I don’t have to get on you, do I? That other stuff just don’t go in there.’”

Skaggs says his desire has always been to play the music that’s in his heart. “I didn’t come to Nashville to be a star,” he explains. “I came here to play music. I wanted to make records. I got a record deal and started having No. 1 records and, yeah, I became a star. But that’s not what brought me here. The love of the music is what brought me here.”

He was a hitmaking machine for Epic Records during the 1980s. Reflecting on those years, he says, “What was really, really hard was to wake up every day wondering if George Strait ’s gonna jump on the chart or if I’m going to jump Dolly and Kenny this week. Am I gonna get to No. 1, are they gonna get there before me … just stuff like that.”

Live at the Charleston Music Hall is the latest in a series of bluegrass projects Skaggs has released on his own label since he moving away from mainstream country in 1996. Skaggs says he’s now “busier than a one-eyed cat watchin’ two rat holes,” but adds, “The stress level is way down. Not that I’m a control freak, but I was always trying to control my future. I was trying to somewhat have control.”

When he established Skaggs Family Records, he says, “I didn’t want it just to be a label for my stuff. If it got down to it and that’s all it ended up being, then that would be fine. But I knew that in order for it to be a label that could grow, I knew I had to get more than just my stuff.” At this point the Skaggs Family roster includes Blue Highway, Mountain Heart and the Whites. “I wanted to be a label, too, where we could find a group that was just getting started and try to really help them production-wise to get them going. We’ve kind of got our eyes on a couple of groups.”

At this point, Skaggs does control nearly every aspect of his professional life. Skaggs Family product is distributed through a major international company, and his concert schedule is arranged by a booking agent. Everything else is in-house, including his recording studio. The studio was originally intended primarily for his own use, but Skaggs is now getting calls from mainstream artists. Martina McBride and producer Paul Worley will be recording there sometime in April.

While Skaggs has been portrayed as a hard-core traditionalist, he is not afraid to take chances. He gets especially excited when he talks about performing bluegrass with symphony orchestras, but he’s also aware that some bluegrass purists have criticized his band’s instrumentation. “There’s those dyed-in-the-wool ‘grassholes’ that won’t move,” he says. “They won’t change. They don’t like the accordion that Ricky put on this new album. … I just like to make music. And I don’t think anyone would ever say that my heart is not in bluegrass. I’ve come back and proven where my loyalty is and where my love is for this music. I don’t think I have to prove anything.”

Skaggs’ interest in performing bluegrass music with large orchestras evolved after he and Kentucky Thunder performed with symphonies in Atlanta, Oklahoma City and Louisville, Ky. Most recently, Skaggs and his band performed four sold-out nights with the Fort Worth, Texas, Symphony.

“Honest to goodness, I want to record some songs for an album that has full strings on it,” he says. “I would love to get either a chamber orchestra or some really great string players to come in and play behind some songs. That’s coming. I was so convinced being out there onstage in Fort Worth that this is a cool sound, and it could be something really new for bluegrass. Not that everybody would ever want to do something like that — and it wouldn’t be something I would want to do on every album — but just for a change, I think it would be cool to see something different like that.”

Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.