Editor’s note: Christmas Time Is Here: A Skaggs Family Celebration premieres Saturday (Dec. 10) at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CMT.
With the convergence of another holiday tour, a companion album and a CMT special, Ricky Skaggs is looking forward to a very merry Christmas.
This is the third year Skaggs has taken his increasingly popular holiday production, A Skaggs Family Christmas, on the road. The first two of the scheduled nine dates have been sellouts. In the larger markets, Skaggs brings in a string section to back the core performers.
Coinciding with the tour is a new album, A Skaggs Family Christmas, Volume One. It showcases not only Skaggs and his band, Kentucky Thunder, but also the Whites (Buck, Cheryl and Skaggs’ wife, Sharon), his children, Molly and Luke Skaggs, and his niece Rachel Warren.
On Saturday (Dec. 10), Skaggs will ramp up the seasonal festivities with his CMT special, Christmas Time Is Here: A Skaggs Family Celebration. Alison Krauss will make a guest appearance on the show.
In an interview with CMT.com, Skaggs says his boyhood Christmases in rural Eastern Kentucky were much simpler than celebrations today.
“My dad would get the guitar out, and we’d sing,” he recalls. “Lot of times, we’d just sit around and sing gospel songs because it was such a spiritual time of year. … We always had a cousin that would drink a little bit. He’d leave his liquor out in the car [because] Mom would never let him bring anything in the house. So he’d go out in the car and take a little nip and come back in with his fiddle. … He was such a great fiddle player, and I learned so much from him. I learned what to do and things not to do.”
Then as now, Skaggs continues, “family closeness” was the focal point of the holiday. “It was a time to kind of slow our lives down,” he explains. “My dad was usually home from work then. He traveled a lot as a welder. So he’d get to be home maybe a week. It was always great to see my dad home every day and night for a week or 10 days. We always opened presents on Christmas Eve. I don’t know why. It could have been because my dad couldn’t wait an extra day.”
Now that he’s the patriarch of his own family, Skaggs has embraced other traditions. “We open presents on Christmas morning. … Then in the afternoon, I’ll get the turkey fryer going and do some deep-fried turkeys. That’s kind of been adopted from Thanksgiving all the way through Christmas now that ’Uncle Ricky’s got to deep-fry some turkeys for us.’ It’s a wonderful thing. We pretty much have a whole-day event.
“Sometimes we’ll go to a friend’s house on Christmas Eve,” he adds. “We’ve got some Cajun friends that we love and go to church with. They’re from Louisiana. They have gumbo on Christmas Eve every year. That’s a great tradition. That’s always fun.”
Skaggs says he has never had to spend Christmas on the road but was once on tour in England at Thanksgiving. He says he tried to find a restaurant that served turkey and mashed potatoes but had to settle instead for shepherd’s pie.
A Skaggs Family Christmas, Volume One features 13 of the 20 or so songs that Skaggs and his family perform on their Christmas shows. “We thought about putting them all on one CD,” he says, “but we got to thinking that it was a lot of songs for one album. So then we decided to just kind of split it up and put maybe 13 on this one and do Volume One and then go back in [the studio] in February, March or April and try to come up with seven or eight more songs we could do for Volume Two. Maybe we’ll put out a DVD with it.”
Also for next year, Skaggs would like to produce a concept video on father-in-law Buck White’s recitation of “The Christmas Guest,” the dramatic highlight of the current album.
Apart from “Christmas Time’s A-Coming” and “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem,” bluegrass music doesn’t have a large repertoire of Christmas standards, Skaggs acknowledges. That being the case, Skaggs didn’t approach the new album from a bluegrass point of view.
“We made a conscious decision in trying to find songs for this album that they would be ones that would work well with acoustic music,” he explains. “It’s not really a bluegrass album. We basically started it with just a couple of acoustic guitars, a mandolin and bass. And we would alternate the mandolin with a mandocello or mandola or maybe a bouzouki or something like that that had those Middle Eastern kind of sounds [but which] worked really with the Appalachian sounds of a dulcimer. Molly [his daughter] used a dulcimer on some stuff. It was really trying to build a sound around the voices.”
The album sparkles with new arrangements of such traditional carols as “Deck the Halls,” “White Christmas,” “What Child Is This,” “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow” and “Little Drummer Boy.” But there’s also a sprinkling of newer material, including Peter McCann and Judy Harris’ “Go Thee Down,” which Skaggs says has become one of his favorites. “It’s terrible to say that when it’s a song that you sing, [but it] has a powerful, powerful message and powerful lyrics. … And [wife] Sharon’s new song, “Love Came Gently,” man, what a strong song that is! And she did a great job.”
The Christmas tour brings Skaggs and family to Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium on Wednesday (Dec. 14). It concludes in Madison, Wis., on Dec. 20.