If there’s one thing Don Rigsby believes, it’s this: Music is a living history. The agreeable Eastern Kentucky native has dedicated his life to bluegrass as a singer, songwriter, mandolinist, producer and professor, and he’s an ally to the genre’s pioneers and newcomers alike.
Talking about musicians from the area, whether famous or forgotten, Rigsby insists, “They’re a link to the past. Everything they speak or play, you’re hearing something from a bygone era that we really need to think about. When they sing about these things that happened, there’s a history lesson in every piece of it. That’s one of the reasons I’m so adamant about preserving it.”
At age 5, Rigsby fell in love with an eight-track tape of Ralph Stanley telling the story of his beloved brother, Carter Stanley, and singing “Hills of Home” with Larry Sparks. The tape, recorded in 1959, included Stanley singing and playing “Little Maggie.” Rigsby says, “I learned to sing from that.”
For his sixth birthday, his parents took him to Ashland, Ky., for a Ralph Stanley concert. Rigsby’s father happened to know the band’s singer, Keith Whitley, who hoisted the child on his shoulders and took him backstage to meet the man himself.
“I’ll never forget that,” says Rigsby, now 38. “Ralph was so gracious and kind, and he’s always been my friend ever since. He never forgot me! Ralph’s nearing 80 years old, and I’m going to be 40 in a couple of years, and we’re friends from the time I was 6. Never did he forget me, never ever, ever. That’s pretty profound.”
Rigsby’s path was set. He educated himself at bluegrass festivals, then put himself through Morehead (Ky.) State University by playing with Charlie Sizemore (who had replaced Whitley as the singer in Stanley’s band before going solo). In time, he landed a spot with the Bluegrass Cardinals, then worked his way up to joining J.D. Crowe & the New South. With the departure of Dan Tyminski, Rigsby stepped into the lineup for the Lonesome River Band, one of the liveliest and most entertaining bands of the 1990s.
“That was a huge step in my career,” Rigsby says now. “Those guys were great and had lots of good adventures together. They’ve had a lot of good people in their band before me and some after me. But I think if they were all being straight and honest about it, we probably peaked at that point — personally and professionally and musically. As a band, that band jelled really well at that point in time. The crowds were really digging what we were doing.”
By the end of the decade, the lineup dissolved (with only Sammy Shelor remaining today). Rigsby remained on Sugar Hill Records, releasing a gospel album, followed by two albums with guitarist-singer Dudley Connell and two additional solo albums. Two vocal tracks he recorded in the late 1990s with master fiddler Randy Howard — “Leader of the Band” and “A Lonesome Road” — surfaced on Howard’s 2003 posthumous release, I Rest My Case.
Around this time, he joined Longview, the supergroup that won an International Bluegrass Music Association award in 1998 for the soaring “Lonesome Old Home,” with Rigsby’s mountain-tinged tenor trading verses with Connell and James King. After an extended break, a reconfigured lineup of Longview (with Crowe, King, Lou Reid and Ron Stewart) has completed a new album, with Rigsby taking care of the final mixing.
Yet, even with these credentials, he was unsure about starting his own band. He knew he couldn’t stop picking, but he no longer had to rely on touring as a sideman after accepting a director position at the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music at Morehead State. His preservation tasks include a series of local radio shows hosted more than three decades ago by Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley that will be remastered and released on Sugar Hill next year. He also teaches vocal harmony, as well as folk and country listening, at the university.
In addition, he’s an in-demand producer, especially after helming Sparks’ 2005 landmark album, 40. The IBMA award-winning project featured Vince Gill, Andy Griggs, Tom T. Hall, Alison Krauss, Skaggs, Stanley, Dan Tyminski, Rhonda Vincent and many others honoring one of Rigsby’s earliest heroes. “I’d say of all the things I’ve done in my career as a musician, that one’s probably at the top of the heap,” Rigsby says. He also rattles off a list of clients he’s promised to produce when the time comes — which is unlikely to be any time soon.
“I took a week’s vacation last week and spent the whole week working on the house building a deck,” he says with a resigned tone. He lives in Isonville, Ky., a small community nestled between the hometowns of Skaggs and Whitley and about 30 miles from Morehead. “I really would have liked to go somewhere and do something, but my place is running down because I don’t have time to mow my grass.”
In July, he released Hillbilly Heartache, his first album as the leader of his new band Midnight Call and his first solo release for Rebel Records. The project’s vividly drawn characters include a moonshining father, an overly confident local hero and a Southern preacher who goes on two-week benders. The musical arrangements will not alienate traditionalists nor confuse casual bluegrass fans. Rigsby chose the songs and produced the album himself, and if he appears to be nervous about starting fresh, he doesn’t show it.
“I took a page out of Larry Sparks’ playbook, and I always have since I heard him say it,” Rigsby remembers. “He said, ’I make my music for me and I make it as good as I can make it. And I make myself happy. And if I do, my fans always reap the dividends from it, because they’re going to always be paid.’ I think that’s the truth. If I make myself happy, everybody else is going to be satisfied.”