Ricky Skaggs Ponders the Birth of Bluegrass

New Album Resurrects Sounds of Bill Monroe's Greatest Band

Ricky Skaggs is a missionary at heart, a man hungry to share his enthusiasms, whether they be his faith, his musical discoveries or the latest technical wonders. Take, as Exhibit A, his recent album with his band, Kentucky Thunder, Honoring the Fathers of Bluegrass: Tribute to 1946 and 1947. It’s on his own Skaggs Family Records label.

The focus here is on the music of the seminal four-man band Bill Monroe put together in late 1945 and first recorded with the following year. It consisted of Lester Flatt on lead vocals and guitar, Earl Scruggs on banjo, Chubby Wise on fiddle and Howard Watts (aka Cedric Rainwater) on bass. Monroe supplied tenor vocals and mandolin — not to mention the overarching musical vision.

From these five original talents, Skaggs says, came the sound the world now knows as bluegrass.

“For decades, Bill Monroe has always been accredited and called ‘the father‘ — singular — ‘of bluegrass,’” Skaggs explains. “I would never want to [suggest] that he is not. He had the infrastructure, he had the band, he had the Grand Ole Opry status since ’39. He had the [touring] car. He had everything. But I know, too, just from researching the history and music and loving it the way I do that he did not have the [bluegrass] sound that we have today until the other men came alongside him.”

Initially, Skaggs considered calling the album Honoring the Elders. But that title, he confesses, didn’t quite capture what he was striving for. “I thought ‘elders’ could mean anything. But ‘fathers’ really signified someone of authority, someone of age, someone of maturity, someone that actually has children, whether it’s biological or children through the creation of music.”

Properly honoring fathers, Skaggs argues, is something that’s lacking in society today. “If you look at television shows, movies, just the media itself, it seems as though the father in a family is always the ditzy, lesser one. He’s the one always trying to keep up. It’s like they put the kids above their fathers.

“It’s real strange — and I don’t mean to get so theological here — but there’s one of the Ten Commandments with a promise. And that is, honor your fathers and mothers that your days will go well with you and that you will prosper in the land. That’s the only commandment with a promise tacked onto the end of it. I think we forsake a lot of that when we dishonor our parents.

“That’s just part of my life and my faith, and I think I can transfer and translate that into my work and the music that I do. I think it’s important.”

Certainly the brightest sound in Monroe’s new 1945 lineup sparkled from Scruggs’ banjo, an instrument the then 21-year-old picked with three-fingered fury. “Earl didn’t come up with the three-finger style,” Skaggs observes, “but he perfected it and put a fire and a zeal in it. … But I can’t say Earl Scruggs was more important than Bill Monroe or [any of the others].

“In my mind’s eye, I see five men that I would consider equals — almost like the Beatles. They created a sound that, if you took one of them away, would still be good, but it wouldn’t be the same sound as when they were all together.”

Now 84, Scruggs is the only surviving member of that groundbreaking assemblage. Skaggs persuaded him to play on the album’s opening cut, “Goin’ Back to Old Kentucky.”

“I really wanted to get him on this CD,” Skaggs says. “It just meant the world to me, and I think it meant a lot to him.”

Apart from resurrecting the instrumental richness of the period, Skaggs’ album also spotlights a sheaf of great bluegrass lyrics, among them “Toy Heart,” “It’s Mighty Dark to Travel,” “Mother’s Only Sleeping,” “Mansions for Me,” “Sweetheart You Done Me Wrong” and “The Old Crossroad.”

Skaggs had the pluck and good fortune to have played — at least briefly — with every member of Monroe’s most fabled band, except for Watts. When Skaggs was 6, he hopped on stage to pick mandolin with Monroe. A year later, he performed on Flatt & Scruggs’ syndicated TV show. (He can be seen on the DVD The Best of Flatt & Scruggs TV Show, Vol. 3.) And, while still a youngster, he joined in occasionally with Wise at bluegrass festivals.

“But I didn’t appreciate who he was at that time,” Skaggs says ruefully. “I wish a thousand times that I could have set him down and talked to him about the old days with Monroe.”

During his country music phase in the 1980s, Skaggs did get the opportunity to speak with the legendary Art Satherley, who produced Monroe for Columbia Records.

“He was in an assisted living place out in California when I went to see him,” Skaggs recalls. “He had dates in his head. He had songs in his head. He had a photographic memory of ’46 and ’47. It was like punching in a database and scrolling through it. He just relived it right in front of me.” After hearing Scruggs play, Satherley said he told Monroe, “You’d better hang on to him. He’s really good.”

However, Monroe’s trailblazing band began to disintegrate in early 1948 when Flatt and Scruggs departed within two weeks of each other. Not long afterward, they formed their own group, Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs & the Foggy Mountain Boys. Monroe was not pleased with these defections, and there was bad blood for years between the “father” and his wayward “sons.”

Skaggs says he sensed that lingering tension when he did his guest spot on the Flatt & Scruggs show. “It’s funny. I knew at age 7 that there was trouble in the camp. I said something to [band member] Curly Seckler about his mandolin. … I said, ‘Is that mandolin like Bill Monroe’s?’ It was a 7-year-old’s innocent question. And he said, ‘Well, I hope not,’ and all the other guys kind of laughed. I thought, ‘Hmmm! That didn’t feel good.’”

Petty grudges or not, Skaggs says Monroe still excelled as a bandleader. “Bill was great about hearing something and saying, ‘I like that’ or ‘Try it this way.’ I’ve even heard Earl talk about Bill’s creativity in the way he wanted something played. And Bill was that way pretty much until the day he died. He had a sound in his head that he wanted his music played a certain way.”

Skaggs says he hopes to turn this tribute concept into a series of “history lessons” to demonstrate the musical contributions of such other bluegrass innovators as Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers and the Osborne Brothers. Instead of recreating their sounds with his band, though, he says he will probably compile selections from the original recordings.

Skaggs has just released another album, The High Notes, that will be sold exclusively in Cracker Barrel restaurants. In it, he and Kentucky Thunder play bluegrass versions of many of his country hits, including “Heartbroke,” “Highway 40 Blues” and “Cajun Moon.”

“It was fun to do,” he says. “It was fun to sing these songs I hadn’t sung in 20 years.”

In addition to touring regularly with his own band, Skaggs occasionally does shows with his friend and musical partner, Bruce Hornsby. He will also take his Skaggs Family Christmas show on the road again this year and may tape it for a TV special.

Plans are in the works as well, he adds, to launch the Skaggs Family Christian label. “It’ll be an open door for anything gospel we want to bring in,” he says.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.