Ricky Skaggs traces the origin of his new album, Instrumentals, to the acquisition of his prized 1923 Gibson F-5 mandolin, the same model that his mentor, Bill Monroe, made world famous. Oddly enough, Skaggs discovered and purchased the instrument only a few weeks after Monroe’s death in 1996.
“It inspired me so much,” says Skaggs, “and I really, really understood what [Monroe's] mandolin did for him inspirationally. … It just made him want to play. Once we started playing bluegrass fulltime in ’97, I was out with it a lot, and I just started writing a lot of songs. I’d find myself with time on my hands where I could sit and just play, and the tunes started coming.”
Skaggs wrote all the 11 songs on Instrumentals, but he is quick to credit his award-winning band, Kentucky Thunder, for pitching in on the arrangements and turning his songs into the showstoppers they are.
Some of the pieces didn’t even have titles when Skaggs and the band began recording them. One of them, which they cut the day superfiddler Vassar Clements died, they dubbed “Missing Vassar.”
“It’s been one of those long-in-coming albums,” Skaggs explains. “You just don’t find a lot of instrumental albums today by a whole band. … I didn’t want this to be a Ricky Skaggs CD. The band has won for seven years now [the] instrumental group of the year [award from the International Bluegrass Music Association], and I wanted to do an album that really featured them and allowed the public out there to hear them play on things other than my singing albums.”
Taking a bunch of instrumentals from the recording studio to the concert stage can be tricky, Skaggs admits. He recently previewed the album to a group of music industry people and found the whole experience a bit awkward.
“Honestly, it felt strange to me as a bandleader to stand there and play six songs in a row with no singing,” he explains. “It’s kind of odd because you don’t really know how to set up the song. It’s not like you can say, ‘Here’s an old Stanley Brothers song that I grew up listening to and me and Keith Whitley sang together,’ or, ‘Here’s one I used to sing with Ralph [Stanley],’ or, ‘Here’s one of Monroe’s classics.’ How often do people want to hear you say, ‘Well, I wrote this one on the bus’?”
In his regular shows, Skaggs gets around this problem by weaving the new instrumentals among his better-known works.
By now, Skaggs has a routine for developing the songs he writes. “What I do is keep a little Sony Memory Stick recorder with me all the time in my mandolin case. When I get an idea, I’ll record, say, the verse part and the chorus part. I won’t record the whole three-minute [composition]. Most of the songs when we got to the studio, we pretty much had to work out the arrangements then.”
Although he long ago earned the nickname “Picky Ricky” for his unerring ear for detail, Skaggs says he’s satisfied with how the album turned out — even with its imperfections. “There’s a few hickeys and a few little blurps and stuff, but really I didn’t want to have to go back and try to punch in and fix up certain things. There was something about the lineup that I liked — the way it felt with what everybody else was doing. So I just kind of left it on there. There weren’t mistakes so bad I couldn’t live with.”
In terms of skill and versatility, bluegrass music has never spawned a better bandleader than Skaggs — with the possible exception of Maestro Monroe himself. But putting and keeping a good band together can be an ordeal.
“It is difficult,” says Skaggs. “I’m thankful that we’re kind of a magnet for good musicians because of the reputation that we started back in the ’80s with the country bands I had. We set up a pretty high bar. So we’ve really had the cream of the crop — great, great guitar players, great fiddle players and people who could play three or four different instruments. We’ve had a lot of those through the years.”
Skaggs’ current band, he points out, has been unusually skilled and stable. “[It's] probably the most talented one that I’ve had. Certainly, the guys can play anything. When you see us out on the Christmas tour and hear how disciplined the guys are, it really shows you how great musicians these individuals are. My bass player, Mark Fain, is kind of the bandleader — as far as writing charts for me and calling everybody and setting up the sessions. … [Fiddler] Andy Leftwich has been here now over four years. And Cody [Kilby], my guitar player, has been with me over four years. These guys were young when they started with the band, like 19 and 20. [Banjoist] Jim Mills has been here about 10 years, [guitarist] Paul Brewster’s been here 11, Mark Fain 12 and [guitarist] Darrin Vincent eight.”
There is, however, a hazard in having such a steady ensemble, Skaggs notes. “I think the hardest part is not letting them grow stale and complacent and comfortable. I like to throw things at them that they’re not used to.” For example, he enlisted the band to play both on an album he did with pop star Bruce Hornsby and a gospel album he’s producing for the Whites.
Musicians who aspire to be band members for Skaggs are advised to stick to the basics. “I had a couple of guys who really tried to impress me by playing all around the melody. I would ask them before the audition, ‘Do you have the “Country Boy” record? Do you have “My Father’s Son” and “Highway 40 Blues?” I want to hear how you play solos to these songs.’ And they’d say, ‘Oh, yeah, I got those. I’ll learn those.’ And they’d come in, and it was just totally, totally different from what the record was. They really thought they had it down and that their fancy playing could get them into the band. They didn’t understand that discipline comes first. If you prove to me you can play what’s on the record, then I’ll give you the freedom to play what comes out of your heart.”
Almost everyone who’s seen Skaggs play has witnessed the beatific smile that breaks out when the band is really cooking. Here is a man who clearly lives for the music.
“I know that’s usually my best part of the day — when I’m up there playing,” he says. “Sometimes it’s hard to be glowing and beaming when you’re only playing to the band. And sometimes we feel like that’s all we have to play to. We’ve got people out there, sitting there and just kind of talking and looking and not really paying attention. That’s when it takes a real entertainer to pull it off, and I don’t consider myself a real entertainer. I’m more of a concert player.” (Obviously, the Country Music Association had a rosier assessment of Skaggs’ stage presence when, in 1985, it awarded him its entertainer of the year trophy.)
Long admirers of each other’s work, Skaggs and Hornsby have finally gotten around to recording an album together. Expected to be titled Jam Boree, it will be released next February or March on the Sony BMG’s Legacy label. “Originally, they did not want the record,” Skaggs says, “but after they heard the finished product, they decided, ‘Oh, yes, we do want that.’”
Skaggs describes the album’s sound as “jazzgrass” and says it includes covers of Hornsby’s earlier releases, including “a beautiful new version of ‘Mandolin Rain,’ that I think tops the original.” He speculates that the Whites’ album, Salt of the Earth, will be out by next Easter.
In addition to all this studio activity, Skaggs has just shot a 30-minute infomercial to promote a new Time Life collection of the “150 greatest bluegrass songs.” It will begin airing in October. Bluegrass would be hard-pressed to find a more knowing and ardent spokesman.