20 Questions With Ricky Skaggs

He Talks "Country Boy," His Christmas Album and Keith Whitley

With mighty bluegrass fingertips and an ear for country hits, Ricky Skaggs dominated the airwaves in the 1980s. But since returning to straight-up bluegrass music, he is perhaps the most visible musician in the genre. Without a doubt, he’s the busiest. In addition to releasing the new album Brand New Strings, recorded in his own studio, he keeps an eye on his own record label, home to the Whites, Mountain Heart and Melonie Cannon. Of course, he’s no stranger to a tour bus yet plays the Grand Ole Opry regularly. Somehow, the 50-year-old Kentucky native found the time to answer fan questions about how to get hired as a picker, his future albums and why a bluegrass festival in France is nothing but a dream.

1. I’m a longtime fan of your singing and picking. I’ve heard that you might make a bluegrass album of your country hits. Do you have any plans to do that?

I don’t plan to do another country album, like you would call a country album, like I did in the ’80s and early ’90s. What I do plan to do is re-record a lot of hits that we had — “Country Boy,” “Crying My Heart Out Over You,” “Heartbroke.” Those songs can be done well — doing an acoustic version of those songs or bluegrass version of those songs. I think country fans would really love to hear those hits redone in a different way, and I think the bluegrass fans would like them, as well. I think that’s something that would be well received by both sides.

2. How’s the family Christmas album coming along?

Finishing up our Christmas album right now is our No. 1 priority, although it won’t come out in ’04. We’re going to do a mini-sampler, like a quarter-cup of eggnog. Five songs for $5, and we’re going to sell them at our shows with the Whites and on our Web site. It’ll be five tunes we’ve chosen. We cut about 17 or 18 songs so far, and we might do another three to round it out to be 20. It’ll be in the stores next year. With Brand New Strings coming out so recently, we didn’t want to put another product in the bins right now. We also want to put together a nice DVD presentation of the Skaggs Family Christmas show with the kids. We’re doing the Ryman Auditorium in December, and it’s going to be great.

3. Do you plan on doing a gospel-only album again?

Yeah, I’m planning to do a gospel album. Hopefully, we’re going to get that started the first part of next year. We’re already looking at material and going back to some of my old notes for requested songs. Every time I hear a song that moves me and my spirit, I try to write it down and chronicle it somewhere, file it away. The only bad thing about me filing stuff away is how do I retrieve it? I’m trying to get better, computer-wise. I’ve got a PDA that has a palm pilot in it, so I do a lot of note keeping in my phone. Still, even with that, I let the memory die out and I haven’t synched it up to my computer, so all is lost. Paper’s hard to lose sometimes, but it’s also hard to find.

4. Do you care if fans approach you in public places? I wanted to say “hi” one time, but I was afraid I’d bother you.

No. I think discretion is a cool thing to have. If I’m eating and chewing, and I’ve got a fork in my mouth or a knife in my hand, it’s not a great time to come and stick your hand out for a handshake. But if I’m walking through the mall or if I’m shopping somewhere or if I’m at a show, and I’m out, people are more than welcome to come up and say “hi” and shake hands. I’m more than willing to do that. We try to be very cordial and very gracious. There are a few times when it’s not appropriate. … I remember this horrible, horrible story one time when Johnny Cash was at the altar praying, and this guy came up and knelt down beside Johnny. They were there praying together, and this guy reaches in his pocket and pulls out a cassette and says, “John, would you listen to this?” Man, now that is what you call “bad gas.”

5. Good morning from France. I’ve been a bluegrass music fan since the 1950s, and I dream of a great concert in France with you and Alison Krauss and Rhonda Vincent. Have you ever considered traveling to France to play a concert?

What is that song? (sings) “Dream on, dream on, dream on.” … I’d love to go to France. Sharon and I have wanted to come over and see France and Italy and spend a whole month over there touring around. But it’s very hard to get groups like myself or Alison or Rhonda. It’s very expensive to fly us all around and get us from Point A to Point B. I think musically and for a good time and for an adventure, we would all agree and say, “We love this job.” Getting realistic here, it would be really hard for something like that to be pulled off financially. Unless someone rose to the occasion and wanted to underwrite the whole thing, maybe American Express or some big corporate sponsor.

6. What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in bluegrass music in your career?

A lot of the old guys dying and going on. That breaks my heart. I’m 50 now, and I’m beginning to be up in the age of the Monroes, Stanleys and Jimmy Martins and guys like that. I’m not that age, but you know what I’m saying? I’m in their generation now. It’s really hard to see Jimmy not really touring. He does a few dates, but he’s pretty sick. I’m still hanging in there, but Mr. Monroe is gone, Lester Flatt’s gone. Earl Scruggs does a few things. Doc Watson is sparse in his working. It’s pulling teeth to get him to do much of anything anymore, physically. It’s a heartbreak for me to have grown up with the legends, the framers. … I had my feet so planted with Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers. I was on stage with Mr. Monroe when I was 6. I was on Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs’ television show when I was 7. I played with the Stanleys before I was 10. That was real to me. These guys are the ones that created this stuff, so the relationship I’ve had with them all has been great. But now to see those guys move on, and many of them have passed away, and see where I’m at, and my role in this music, it’s a little scary. We want to keep tradition alive and to promote tradition

7. How would you describe Bill Monroe’s role in bluegrass?

Bill Monroe was not a traditional artist. In his day, he was cutting edge. He was a radical. I mean, he was a jazz musician. He could have played with Charlie Parker or Louis Armstrong or John Coltrane. Musically, he was such an innovator and a classic example of God-given raw talent who could play anything. But we look back now, 40 or 50 years time, and we see him as a really traditional bluegrass guy. Well, he wasn’t, if you go back and look at where he came from and the music he was playing prior to discovering bluegrass.

8. What has been the most surprising thing you’ve seen happen in bluegrass lately?

One of the pleasant surprises is the young musicians that I’m seeing in bluegrass. The Chris Thiles, the Watkins kids, even Rhonda Vincent and Alison Krauss. I look at them and they’re 25 years younger than me, most of them. I see Sierra Hull, this little girl from Tennessee. And the Cherryholmes Family. There are bunches of them out there, coming up. Andy Leftwich and Cody Kilby, who play in my band. These guys are 23 years old, and they’re the Tiger Woods of their genre of art. These guys are so good at what they do. They’re perfecting their game, and they’re getting better all the time.

9. Do you find it easy to find suitable songs coming out of Nashville and Music Row?

For years, Music Row never really tipped its hat to bluegrass. It’s always looked at it as second-class citizenship just because they didn’t sell a lot of records. It didn’t always dot its “I’s” and cross its “T’s” in the way that country music does. But this last album, Brand New Strings, is a prime example that Music Row can write bluegrass music. They can write for Ricky Skaggs. They can write songs that me and Alison and different groups can do — if we can find them. If they’ll get ’em to us. They are writing songs, so that’s encouragement to me for the future.

10. How do I find out when professional groups are auditioning for guitar players? Is there some sort of forum that I can access where country stars and bluegrass stars announce auditions?

I don’t know of anything like that. When we’re looking for guitar players, somebody knows somebody somewhere. That’s pretty much the best way to get known: to know band members in bluegrass bands. Sometimes you may not know the bosses, but you’ll know the band members. You can get to them a whole lot easier sometimes than you can right to the bosses.

11. Have you ever recorded “Life’s Railway to Heaven”? My mother loves that song, and we grew up listening to the Opry.

I’ve never recorded that. I’ve sang it at a few bluegrass festivals when they have the grand finale or the all-sings. Kind of like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

12. What’s the story behind “Honey (Open That Door)”? I’ve always loved that song.

Hank DeVito, who was a steel player with Emmylou [Harris] when I was in the group, gave me a tape one time of old Webb Pierce tunes. That was back in the days before CDs, and that sounds so long ago, but we used to carry Sony Walkmans around all the time. The hot new item for all the band members to have was the cool cassette players you could stick in your pocket. He had a cassette that he had taken to Europe when we were on a six-week tour over there. I remember listening to some old country, like a mix tape, Buck Owens, George Jones, Webb Pierce, Ray Price and stuff. I said, “Man, I love this stuff. If you make me a copy sometime, I sure would appreciate it.” So we got back to the States and he made me a copy of Webb Pierce. I remember hearing “Honey (Open That Door)” on there and just loved it. I thought, “I’d love to cut that sometimes.” That started out to be the second Sugar Hill record. I had just finished Sweet Temptation, which was my first Sugar Hill record. I was supposed to do a second album for them which ended up being Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown. That had “Uncle Pen,” “Honey (Open That Door),” “Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown” … it had four or five No. 1 records on it. That was a pretty big record for me. We recorded it for Sugar Hill, but CBS ended up buying it from Sugar Hill, so they could put it out.

13. I’m interested in learning the mandolin and I’m a beginner in musical instruments. Can you recommend one for less than $500?

Kentucky makes pretty good mandolins. Stelling makes a pretty good mandolin. Collings makes a pretty good mandolin for beginners. Pricewise, I really don’t know what they are. You could go to First Quality Music up in Louisville, Ky. That would be a good place to look. Also, Guitar Center is a good place. They’re good friends of ours. There are a few Guitar Centers around the country, and they have a large assortment of acoustic instruments.

14. How old were you when you started playing mandolin?

I started playing when I was 5. My father showed me two or three chords on it, and I just started playing it and singing. I’d been singing a couple of years before that. I used to sing in church with my mom and sing around the house and sing at get-togethers we would do as the Skaggs Family. My dad played guitar and my mother sang, so I’d go up with them.

15. Any advice for beginners, when it comes to mandolin?

Don’t try to run before you crawl. You have to start out slow and learn to pick some melodies in your mind. If you like a certain song, don’t try to play “Amanda Jewel” or “Get Up John” the first time. You may break a finger, or you may break an arm. Take the melody of a song like “You Are My Sunshine,” something simple like that. There are some things out now that I did not have when I was a kid. There’s DVDs and video cassettes. There’s a place called Homespun Video. They do a lot of mandolin, banjo, fiddle, acoustic guitar, upright bass, Dobro. They really cover the whole gamut of acoustic instruments, especially bluegrass.

16. A long time ago, I seem to remember a music video of you on a New York subway train. Which video was that, and was it actually filmed on a subway train?

We actually did film that at a Times Square subway. We rented a subway from midnight until 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. We had our own car. Some of it was trick photography, but it was great fun. We had such a wonderful time doing it. It’s called “Country Boy.” That was the second video that VH1 used when they came on the air. An awesome little piece of trivia there. Mayor Ed Koch was in it, and Bill Monroe was in it. CMT still plays it from time to time. It’s one of the classics.

17. Do you stay in contact with any of Keith Whitley’s family?

I see Lorrie [Morgan] from time to time, his widow. I haven’t seen Jessie, his son, (lately). Actually, he was at the Opry about six months ago, and he just left the Opry to go out with friends. I wanted so much to see him. I understand that he looks like his dad. I would really loved to have seen him and hugged him and talked to him some about his dad. I’d love to take him to lunch sometime and tell him things about his dad that he probably doesn’t know and spend a little time with him. I know Keith would have wanted me to do that.

18. The first tape I ever bought was your album Highways and Heartaches when I was 6 years old. What was the first album you ever bought?

The first albums I really started buying were by the Stanley Brothers. My sister was buying the Beatles. I remember going to Grayson, Ky., and buying the new Ralph Stanley records when they came out. Carter had already passed away. Larry Sparks was with Ralph Stanley at the time, and I remember going to buy a couple of records that Larry was on with Ralph. I also remember vividly going to a store in Columbus, Ohio, and it was a gold mine. I walked in there, and they had 10 or 15 Stanley Brothers records. They had old Mercury stuff. They had old Columbia stuff that had been reissued. They had Rich-R-Tone stuff that I’d never heard before. Talk about heaven!

19. Everyone always asks Christian artists what compromises they had to make to succeed in mainstream markets. But what compromises have other musicians had to make who have worked for you, due to your religious beliefs?

Musicians who come into this band know that they can’t be drinking. There’s absolutely zero tolerance for drugs on the road. The guys can go out after a show if they want to sit at the bar and have a beer or a glass of wine. That’s perfectly OK with me. But the problem comes when people start abusing it and using it to alter their musician abilities and their God-given gifts and talents. There have been some musicians that haven’t liked the rules out here on the road. But you would not work for Kroger or Microsoft and have any other rules. You’re not going to be drinking on the job. You’re not going to be doing drugs on the job. If you are, you’re fired. It’s not a hall pass just because you’re a musician. “Ah, well, musicians are musicians.” I think there’s been some compromises that some musicians had to make, but I tell you, they’ve become better people as a result. It’s been good for them.

20. Are the Christian and gospel songs you do an extension of your love of bluegrass, or do you also consider yourself to be in the Christian artist category?

I’m not a Christian artist. I’ve never considered myself that. But I am an artist that’s a Christian. I’ve always looked at my Christian life not as a religion, but as a relationship. I have this question asked of me a lot, since we’ve been out supporting President Bush. … People ask me, “Should you take your religion and your faith into your office?” And I say, “Well, yeah.” If you’re a real Christian and a believer in faith and you believe the Bible, then how can you separate yourself from the real core of what you are? … I don’t see really how you can separate it.

Christianity is not like a suit of clothes that you hang in the closet on Monday through Saturday and then put on Sunday morning. If you’re not having church in your heart six days a week, the seventh day isn’t going to help you a whole lot. For me, musically, a Christian lifestyle helps me to choose the right songs and to say something I want to say — like the song on Brand New Strings, “Spread a Little Love Around.” That’s an example of a song that really needs to be sung right now. “Enjoy the Ride” is another song that’s a real statement. It’s about forgiving your past and going on with your life. Don’t get bitter, get better. Become a better person, and don’t wallow in past experiences or mistakes. Really, if you look at it, there are no mistakes in life. I think we call them mistakes, but they are life lessons, if you look at them that way.